On the trail of the snail

On the trail of the snail

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

It can exist on the tops of mountains, buried on the prairie, hidden in your flowerbed, or under the litter of the forest floor. It is both constructive and destructive; it serves admirably as an epicure’s item of food, in medical research, and produces havoc in your garden. What is it? It is a land snail.

Originating in the sea millions of years ago, some snails moved to the land and diversified into about 18,000 separate species as they adapted to the terrestrial environments on earth while some others chose a freshwater mode of life in which to evolve. Most of the snail order of mollusks, however, remained in the sea and are responsible for the most interesting and beautiful group of seashells that beachgoers avidly collect. Much of the dolomitic limestone underlying northern Illinois is composed of the shells of untold numbers of snails that lived in the ancient sea that once covered most of the United States.

L’escargot, as the French call him, is truly a remarkable creature. With no internal skeleton, the snail manufactures an external shell from calcium carbonate found in the soil and carries this protective house around on his back. A few species of land snails have lost the ability to produce a shell and are called slugs.

Though the gastropod (meaning “stomach foot”), as a snail is technically called, appears to be a weak and fragile animal, its body is composed largely of muscle. Snail experts have determined that Helix (the type of snail we eat) can carry a load 12 times its weight and pull a mass equivalent to 200 times its heft. If you or I were forced to carry our house around on our back, we too would probably move along at a “snail’s pace.”

Uphill or downhill, the snail’s progress on a good day is always about the same; two inches a minute, 10 feet an hour, 240 feet a day. But, it is better to move slowly and cautiously and arrive at your destination a bit late than to never arrive at all. Slow motion is, of course, disadvantageous to the snail, but the constant presence of his protective shell offers excellent protection from any would-be enemies.

In motion, the snail is a thing of beauty to watch. Its sinuous body glides along on its suction cup-like stomach , which it uses as its foot. Tiny muscles contract in rhythmic waves to propel it forward along a lubricated pathway. As the snail inches along, special glands in the stomach-foot secrete a clear, sticky mucus to ease the way and to protect the delicate body from abrasion. This lubricating mucus dries rapidly after the snail has passed over it and glistens silvery in the sunlight. This substance is so effective that snails have been induced to crawl along the edge of a razor blade without a trace of a cut on its body. I am surprised someone has not synthesized this substance for various uses by humans.

Land snails are vegetarians and spend most of their time feeding or sleeping. A long tongue equipped with numerous sharp teeth is very efficient in rasping and tearing vegetation into small bits before swallowing.

Two times a year, however, the snail stops feeding to fall in love. As it possesses both male and female reproductive organs in its body, there is no need to seek out a member of the opposite sex with which to mate; just another snail of the same species. After an elaborate courtship, the snails unite and fertilize each other’s eggs. A few days, later numerous eggs are deposited in a prepared nest, and in about three weeks the eggs hatch into tiny replicas of their parents.

Undoubtedly, the land snail attains its greatest status at the end of a fork. It is relished in France, Spain and Italy. The number of devotees to les escargots is growing in the United States.

Tommy “Muskrat” Greene, of Maryland, holds the world record for snail consumption. In 1981, Muskrat’s stomach earned him a place in the Guinness Book of records when he polished off 350 escargots in garlic butter in one minute in a Washington, D. C., restaurant. In 1985, this individual added to his fame by downing 288 raw oysters—weighing a total of 6 pounds—in a minute and 33 seconds.

Some years ago, researchers in France discovered that certain chemicals in the gastric juice of land snails were invaluable in the study of sex and adrenal hormones (steroids) attached to other molecules in the human bloodstream. These chemicals enabled scientists to isolate the hormones without disrupting them. By studying the concentration of these substances in the blood, researchers may detect the presence of certain types of cancers.

Where else will the silvery trail of the snail may lead us? Who knows?

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