Where are the Snails?

Where are the Snails?

Where are the snails? I’m talking about the common garden snails that used to crawl around in large numbers in my garden. They would make their slimy way around the concrete pavings, climbing my plant pots and flowers and just getting themselves everywhere! I never did anything to get rid of the snails though, just careful manoeuvres to keep from squashing them and sometimes picking the odd one up to chuck over to a far corner of the garden.

I honestly can’t say exactly when I stopped seeing so many snails, out of sight is definitely out of mind, but my recent sighting of a single solitary snail in the front garden made me realise how few there had been of late.

Photograph of a common garden snail in Tina's garden.
A Common Garden Snail in Tina’s Garden

It was a fine looking snail, large with a nicely formed shell. Where had it come from I wondered and where were all its friends? To try and answer these questions I decided to do some reading about snails and see if I could find out what could be causing the reduction in their numbers.

Garden Snail Facts

The cornu aspersum or common garden snail is pretty much the most recognisable land snail. Whilst some people eat them most see them as a garden pest albeit a very interesting one for children with their ability to hide inside their shell and their retractable tentacles.

These slow moving molluscs have a soft slimy body that they are able to pull completely into their shell, they do this when they are being threatened and also when inactive.

The snail’s shell varies from light to dark brown with brownish yellow to cream stripes. The edging on the shell’s opening is white or cream in colour. There are 4 to 5 spiral coils on the shell.

Unlike some sea snails the garden snail doesn’t have an operculum. This is like a trap door that covers the opening of the shell when the soft body is fully inside, it gives some level of security against predators. Instead the garden snail creates a thin sheet of dried mucus, called an epiphragm, which serves a similar function to the operculum and also helps the snail retain moisture.

Another interesting thing I’ve learned is the direction of the coil on their shells. Mostly the coils are to the right (clockwise), only in very rare cases are they to the left (anti-clockwise). The more common right-handed shells are called dextral while the left-handed ones are known as sinistral shells. If you ever come across a sinistral shell make sure to grab it!

The garden snail has two pairs of tentacles on its head. The larger upper pair is light sensitive and then there is a smaller pair below these that are touch and smell sensitive. Both sets of tentacles can be extended and also retracted into the snail’s head.

Underneath the tentacles lies the snail’s mouth which has a structure called a radula. This has many tiny teeth formed of chitin which the snail uses to scrape or cut its food.

The snail has a muscular ‘foot’ which it uses to move along the ground, it releases a slimy mucus which helps to reduce the friction between the foot and the ground.

A Snail’s Life

The garden snail is actually native to the Mediterranean region but it can now be found far and wide in most continents of the world. It’s been taken around either on purpose or accidentally amongst other plants and goods that were being transported.

Snails are hermaphrodites, which is to say each snail produces both male and female gametes. They are able to self fertilise though most reproduction is sexual i.e. one snail will fertilise the eggs of another snail. About two weeks after fertilisation the snail lays a batch of eggs. The eggs hatch in about two weeks and the newly born snails reach maturation in one or two years.

Sketch of a garden snail in graphite and coloured pencil
Garden Snail – graphite and coloured pencil

The snail is nocturnal, carrying out most of its activities at night. While it will occasionally eat rotting vegetable or animal matter, the garden snail feeds mainly on plants. It is this devouring of plants that mean it is despised as a pest by many gardeners.

Snails will hibernate over winter and also if the conditions are hot and dry. The snail lies dormant and its metabolic rate reduces.

Snails as Pets

Yes, I did mean to write pets and not pests!

Garden snails make an easy to care for friend for kids who’ll enjoy observing how the creatures move into and out of their shells, their tentacles and the peristaltic movement of their feet.

Snails move really slowly, about .03 miles per hour at best, so there won’t be much risk of them getting lost or any need to give chase around the house. They can live for over five years if kept under the right conditions so plenty of time to enjoy them.

Okay, But Where are the Snails?

No, not in my garden but it seems other people are still suffering their presence so perhaps there hasn’t been some mollusc doomsday event. It could just be that they don’t find my garden attractive any more, I haven’t got any hostas or other large leafed plants so maybe it’s just down to canny planting on my part!

But then I also saw this blog post. It’s from the US and from about a year and a half ago, a number of people there reported a reduction in snail numbers. Rats, other local wildlife and dry/hot weather seem to have got most of the blame. We had a really hot summer three years ago, maybe that had an effect but sadly I have no real idea where they’ve gone.

Snails are known to have a great homing instinct, maybe my recent guest is the first of many on their way back to my garden.

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