Thursday, March 25, 2010

Land Snail

 Like Rodney Dangerfield, the snail underfoot gets no respect.  Its mollusk cousin,  the octopus, has an interesting life, can morph into calamari in your pasta and lives in salt water.  Its brother mollusk, the slug, is generally reviled and doesn't do well with salt at all.  Snails- when we think of them at all- are usually as escargot in an expensive restaurant.  
James gave the huffle of a snail in danger,
And nobody heard him at all.
                                           --A.A. Milne
The "huffle of a snail in danger" has always been a favorite in our family, used to describe the frustration and impotence we feel with many political and environmental issues.  But what would cause a snail to huffle?  The environment, for one.
As pointed out in today's News-Leader MDC article, "Most snails feed mainly on dead plant matter and fungi. A few species feed on live plant material, and one is a carnivore that feeds on other snails. Gastropods have a rasping tongue, called a radula, that is coated with small teeth-like protrusions. The in-and-out motions of the radula help the snail scrape food into their mouths."
The rasping tongue scrapes food off solid surfaces such as rocks and- significantly- pavement.  This habit has been used in European environmental studies because the snails store up heavy metals such as cadmium.  By putting caged snails at various locations for defined periods, researchers can collect comparative data on heavy metal levels on roads and thus compare surface pollution rates.  Unfortunately, this same feeding strategy has lead to a decline in snail populations from pollution of their natural habitats.
The article goes on to point out their interesting sex life.
Most Missouri land snails are hermaphrodites, meaning they contain both male and female components. Some species participate in a unique mating process that includes each snail shooting a dart-like spike (R-rated article) into its mate. Some believe this unusual behavior, which was documented as early as the time of the ancient Greeks, led to the creation of the myth of Cupid — the small cherub who creates love by shooting arrows into people's hearts. Each snail will lay up to 100 eggs in the top level of the soil. The eggs hatch in two to four weeks of favorable weather. Snails may lay eggs as often as once a month throughout the summer. Snails go into periods of dormancy in winter and can also become dormant during dry periods in the summer.
 For more on what eats snails and what snails eat, go to Land Snail Ecology or Wikipedia.  And to improve your mind, read this classic, Four Friends by A. A. Milne.
Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,
  Leonard was a lion with a six-foot tail,
George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,
       And James was a very small snail.

Leonard had a stall, and a great big strong one,
  Ernest had a manger, and its walls were thick,
George found a pen, but I think it was the wrong one,
       And James sat down on a brick.

Ernest started trumpeting, and cracked his manger,
  Leonard started roaring, and shivered his stall,
James gave the huffle of a snail in danger
       And nobody heard him at all.

Ernest started trumpeting and raised such a rumpus,
  Leonard started roaring and trying to kick,
James went a journey with the goat's new compass
       And he reached the end of his brick.

Ernest was an elephant and very well-intentioned
  Leonard was a lion with a brave new tail,
George was a goat, as I think I have mentioned,
       But James was only a snail.

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