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Dr. William Wright, Chapman University – Territorial Limpets

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. William Wright of Chapman University explains how limpets battle it out for the best section of the tide pool. 

William Wright is an associate professor of biology at Chapman University in Orange, California. His research is focused on the neurobiology, ecology, and evolution of invertebrate behavior, in particular, that of several gastropod species. His current project examines the how territoriality leaves limpets more vulnerable to wave action. He holds a Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

About Dr. Wright

Dr. William Wright – Territorial Limpet

Territoriality is among the most risky lifestyles on the planet.  Individuals of territorial species risk life and limb to sequester a little chunk of real estate for their own personal use.  People do it.  Chimpanzees do it.  Mice do it.  Limpets do it.

Limpets are snails that live on the seashore in southern California.  They are very different from humans, yet they defend territory, just like we do. Limpets are essentially blind, and practice a form of territoriality that resembles nothing so much as bumper cars.  Large limpets push small ones.  Small ones beat hasty retreats at first contact with large ones.  These risky bumper-car chases are the essence of limpet territoriality.  My students and I study just how risky they are.

Limpets live in a violent washing machine.  The restless sea relentlessly bangs at them, and they are notoriously tenacious clingers to the slippery rocks.   Except when they become territorial bumper cars.   Our research shows that limpets engaged in territorial behavior are 100 times more likely to be swept away by a wave than when stationary.

This all makes the savage sea a kind of predator, that makes the limpets pay for their territorial habit.  And yet, like humans, limpets just can’t help themselves.  Territoriality pays good dividends.  The algal turf of a defended territory grows lush, and the limpet that defends it grows big enough to increase fecundity 500-fold.  Now that is a payoff!  But just don’t let the rogue wave catch you doing it!


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