Friday, May 13, 2011

Slow and Steady

A devastating neurological disorder leaves you nearly bedridden for years. A friend brings you a snail she found in the woods.

At first your reaction is "It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility—especially for a snail, something so uncalled for—was overwhelming."

Soon you realize that this seemingly ponderous creature is actually fearless, tireless, and infinitely fascinating--just as you yourself are.

This is the true tale told by Elisabeth Tova Bailey in her slender, yet deep, book "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating—The Earthly Adventures of a Woman and a Gastropod."

Here is some molluscan trivia sure to enliven any conversation that runs slow:

Our word 'snail' comes from the German 'schnecke,' a spiral or spiral-shaped yeast bun. Some snails have rightward turning spirals; the shells of other snails grow to the left.

Thirty-five thousand snail species have been discovered; tens of thousands have not been isolated.

The scientific name for snails—gastropod—comes from Latin and Greek and means 'stomach-foot.'

Snails have teeth. Thousands. They are arrayed in 80 or so ribbon-like rasps (radulae) with about 30 teeth to a row.

Like camels, snails have an internal water reservoir and can store 1/12th of their weight in water.

Half of a snail's breathing comes through its skin, the other half is done through a pneumostome, a hole in the side of its head.

Snails are deaf, earless.

They drink through their feet. This is called, not surprisingly, foot-drinking.

Snails taste using their lower tentacles, and smell and can distinguish light and dark through the upper pair.

One-third of a snail's energy goes into slime production. Goo is the end all be all for snails and is used for moving along, self-defense, healing, lovemaking, and to guard eggs.

Snails hibernate; the technical word for it is estivation. They do this by secreting a hard mucus door, the epiphragm, which keeps them moist and alive inside.

Snails are horny, so to speak. Many are hermaphrodites. Their lovemaking is anything but hasty, languorously lasting about seven hours.

Most bizarrely, about a third of all snail species fire 'love darts' at their potential mates. It is believed that the darts contain a chemical that makes the recipient more likely to accept sperm. Because both the Greek and Romans ate snails and closely observed their behavior, scholars believe the snail love dart is the original Cupid's arrow. (The one pictured above is one-half of a millimeter long.)

Snails lay clutches of 30 to 50 eggs. They tend to their eggs, keeping them moist with protective slime. Snails are good mothers.

Here is a philosophy of life, distilled by a scientist after a lifetime of snailwatching: "The right thing to do is to do nothing, the place to do it is in a place of concealment and the time to do it is as often as possible."