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Notes from the Writing Life

In Which The Author Sets Up A Google Alert and Learns Many Marvelous Things About Snails

In Which The Author Sets Up A Google Alert and Learns Many Marvelous Things About Snails

Just before Escargot was released, a thought occurred to me. Having written a book about a very beautiful French snail, it seemed to me that I should stay up-to-date on snail news. I'm not sure, at this point, what I expected to learn -- perhaps I just thought I'd find out if people were talking about my book. But whatever my reasoning, I set up a Google alert to send snail news my way. This has turned out to be a quite wonderful blessing. Snails, it seems, are the source of many remarkable stories. Of course, you do have to skim over all the headlines noting that something or other is "moving at a snail's pace," which, when viewed in aggregate, quickly reveals itself to be the world's most irritating cliche. But the rest is pure, random, gold.

Of all the snail news, the best -- and also the most tragic -- was the saga of Jeremy, the snail whose shell spirals left instead of right. As one article explained:

Snails mate face-to-face, sliding past each other on the right hand side so that their genitalia can meet. To copulate Jeremy must beat one in million odds to find another snail which also has left-handed sex organs which are compatible with his own.

An English snail researcher hoped to match Jeremy with another left-coiling snail in order to see if the trait was hereditary, and so he put out a call for possible mates. Two other left-coiling snails were found, and all was rejoicing and salacious speculation -- until the two potential mates, Lefty and Tomeu, hooked up with each other. In the latest news:

Researchers announced earlier this month that the pair has produced three clutches of eggs, and more than 170 baby snails. The first batch of eggs was ‘fathered’ by Lefty and laid by Tomeu; because snails are hermaphrodites, they can fulfill the role of either mother or father.

But there were other, happier research stories, too. The Brits, it seems, are fascinated by snails. This week researchers at the marvelously titled BBC television show The British Garden: Life and Death On Your Lawn announced that snails have a homing instinct and will -- at their own leisurely pace -- creep back to their own territory if moved. Professor Dave Hodgson apparently gathered 65 snails from four corners of a garden in Hertfordshire and painted their shells with a fluorescent color corresponding to the home corner. I'll let the article tell the rest:

A  fifth group of snails, brought up from Cornwall was also added to the mix as a control group, and painted bright green . 

 Once the snails were glowing brightly, they were videoed overnight to find out if they would travel back to their home flower-beds during their nocturnal meanderings. Snails can travel just over one mph and so can get 25 metres in the 24 hours. 

"Interestingly, the Cornish ones headed due west, extraordinarily in the right direction to get home," said Prof Hodgson.

"In the blue corner, almost all of the snails I found were blue snails. In the red corner, almost all of the red snails found their way back. In the orange corner almost all of them were orange, and of the pinks almost all of them were back in the pink corner.

 Think how much richer your life is now that you know that a British researcher has been color-coding the snails in his garden.

Yesterday's alert informed me that researchers were able to selectively remove memories from a snail's brain, which makes you wonder what kinds of things snails remember. (Where home is, apparently) This research might some day help people rid themselves of traumatic memories, the article claims. Meanwhile, the venom of another kind of snail looks like a promising painkiller, potentially helping us fight opioid addiction. And the slime from yet another kind of snail is reportedly useful for treating acne. Snails: the answer to every question.

And there's so much more -- so many odd, marvelous tidbits. Customs agents in Philadelphia discovering 7 lbs. of Italian snails in a box labelled "Shoes and Honey."

Tiny snails the size of a seed stopping a freeway bypass in England.

Different tiny snails showing up in driveways and footpaths in New Zealand, where residents whimsically speculate that they're being eaten by leprechauns.

Photos of snails in the rain.

Video of giant snails "slurping earthworms like spaghetti." (These both come from the Daily Mail -- what is it about the Brits and snails?) 

In Maine, a little girl coaxes snails out of their shells by humming to them. In Israel, a veterinarian saved the life of a snail by mending its broken shell with glue. In Utah, elementary school teachers rewarded students for improved reading abilities by eating snails. Imagine the scene:

The entire student body gathered in the lunchroom for the end-of-year assembly. After handing out various awards, Literacy Coach Kimberly Panter announced 85 percent of students had improved their reading scores, and as a reward, various teachers would have to eat snails.

Names were drawn out of a hat to see which teachers would have to eat the snails, to the roar of the students. The snails were donated by local restaurant La Caille. Alex Hill, a representative of La Caille, demonstrated how to eat the snails by clasping the snail shell using tongs and pulling out the meat with a special fork. After a quick countdown, the teachers gulped down the snails, a few pulling faces and squirming. One teacher quickly began drinking a Diet Coke as soon as she could.

(Escargot, naturally, was horrified by this development. "They couldn't eat a nice salad with a few croutons and a light vinaigrette?")

And then there were the discoveries. At an ancient settlement inside a cave in Iraq, British (!) researchers found a decorated snail shell apparently made as an ornament by Upper Palaeolithic people. A mucous-shooting worm snail -- also called 'a spiderman snail' in other news articles -- was discovered in a shipwreck in the Florida Keys. Three new species of tiny, fragile, and colorless land snails were found in Georgia, Panama, and Belize. Certain species of bellicose snails were found to wield their shells like clubs to knock out predators. To quote the report:

They found that two snail species -- Karaftohelix (Ezohelix) gainesi in Hokkaido, Japan and Karaftohelix selskii in the Far East region of Russia -- swing their shells to hit the carabid beetles, demonstrating a very unique, active defence strategy; while other closely related snail species withdraw their soft bodies into their shells and wait until the opponent stops attacking.

The world of snails is one miracle after another. And so, the alerts that come to me each day, brimming with updates from the gastropodic world, seem somehow to be a reminder of the wonder of everyday life -- of the revelations lurking underfoot, just waiting to be noticed.

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