The beauty of the backyard snail

Examining the snail up close, you appreciate her refined sensitivity

  • Nov. 26, 2015 10:00 a.m.

The snail gets up

and goes to bed

with very little fuss.

– Kobayashi Issa, 1763 – 1828

There are about 94 species of terrestrial snails and slugs in British Columbia, and more continue to be discovered.

A gastropod belonging to the phylum Mollusca, the common garden snail is a haiku of a creature, diminutive, subtle and good at hiding.

The ones in my garden, I have learned, are European brown snails, and hiding is the safest thing they can do. They are descendants of escargot imported for the cuisine industry and are not popular with those who would allow space for native species only. I adore them.

Once you get up close to a European garden snail and observe the beautiful patterns on her shell, and the gently moving antennae as she responds to minute changes in light and temperature, you begin to appreciate her refined sensitivity.

I thought I was the only one who felt this way until I read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books, 2010), Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s delightful account of a long, slow convalescence from illness, when her main companion was a snail in a bedside terrarium.

Imprisoned by debilitating illness, you make friends where you can, and the up-side of such limitation is that you focus on the small world, the “insignificant” creatures like snails.

Small and slimy they may be, but they actually help keep the natural world alive by conditioning soil down near the bottom of the food chain. Bailey had a ring-side view of this from her bed, as do I in the garden.

These gastropods like damp ground, where they grind up morsels in tiny rasping jaws.

They are “detriti-vores,” meaning that  they consume organic wastes and with the help of soil bacteria, make nutrients accessible to roots. The European snail lays eggs in soil cavities once or twice a year. I call all snails “her” because all lay eggs. They are hermaphrodites, each fertilizing another snail’s eggs during copulation – after a two- to twelve-hour mating ritual. Probably few people are aware of the fascinating secret lives of these diminutive invertebrates that hide in our gardens. Young hatch in about two weeks and take two or more years to mature and build enough calcium to harden their shells.

During freezing temperatures or drought they withdraw into their shells, where they can remain dormant for weeks or months without eating.

It is those baby snails that I confess to betraying, for I have sacrificed some to that other shelled creature who burrows and hibernates: the tortoise. My pet tortoise so loved to eat snails and slugs that I had to balance my Buddhistic desire to harm nothing, with the desire to delight Turtullian with nutritious live prey.

The smile of a tortoise is as fetching as the delicate antennae of a snail. Which to value more? I let fate decide by showing the tortoise where the snails were, nestling under the ferns, and “letting nature take its course.” It also takes its course in the form of the raccoons who frequently find the snails at night and leave their shells in the bird bath after digging out the meat within. Should anyone try to lay down slug bait however, for these elegant, dignified and useful creatures, I’d react with fury. Nature didn’t evolve 94 examples of a genus because they have no role.

We don’t usually consider the snail to be one of life’s more charismatic creatures, but if you really look at and get to know one, like Bailey did the one who lived and gave birth beside her bed, you can get surprisingly attached.

Barbara Julian is an Oak Bay writer and nature enthusiast.

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

SD62 bus driver Kerry Zado said it’s common to see drivers lose their patience and pass by his bus while he’s picking up students during the morning commute. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
School bus driver laments motorists who pass while red lights are flashing

All buses in Sooke School District outfitted with stop sign cameras

Victoria police are seeking home surveillance video and witnesses following a prowling incident in Esquimalt Jan. 20. (Black Press Media file photo)
Esquimalt prowler removes air conditioner, peers into person’s home

VicPD is seeking video footage, witnesses following Jan. 20 incident

A cyclist navigates the shoulder in traffic along Oak Bay Avenue in Victoria. (John Luton Photo)
Oak Bay council supports Fort Street bike lanes

Victoria bike lanes would connect to Cadboro Bay Road

(Black Press Media files)
Transport Canada not budging on enclosed deck rules, despite calls from BC Ferries union

There have been at least 23 cases of the U.K. variant detected in Canada, four of which are in B.C.

Victoria police are warning people of a continued rise in cybercrime. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
Victoria police warn of rising cybercrime called spear phishing

Fraudsters continue to trick people out of large sums of money

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Jan. 19

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Hamonic grabs Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson by the face during first period NHL action in Vancouver, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horvat scores winner as Canucks dump Habs 6-5 in shootout thriller

Vancouver and Montreal clash again Thursday night

Rod Bitten of Union Bay won $500,000 in the Lotto Max draw on Jan. 15. Photo supplied
Vancouver Island electrician gets shocking surprise with $500K Extra win

Rod Bitten has been hard at work with home renovations, which is… Continue reading

Eighteen-year-old Aidan Webber died in a marine accident in 2019. He was a Canadian Junior BMX champion from Nanaimo. (Submitted)
Inadequate safety training a factor in teen BMX star’s workplace death in 2019

Aidan Webber was crushed by a barge at a fish farm near Port Hardy

Oyster River Fire Rescue members were called out to a suspicious fire in Black Creek. Two vehicles parked at a private residence were destroyed by fire. Photo courtesy Oyster River Fire Rescue
Suspicious fire destroys two vehicles at Vancouver Island residence

Oyster River Fire Rescue personnel were dispatched to a fire at a… Continue reading

Southern resident killer whales in B.C. waters. Research shows the population’s females are more negatively influenced by vessel traffic than males. (Photo supplied by Ocean Wise Conservation Association)
Female orcas less likely to feed in presence of vessel traffic: study

Research the southern resident population raises concerns over reproduction capacity

Seven streets in downtown Duncan, including Station Street, will soon have new native names added to their signage. (Submitted graphic)
New Duncan street signs will be in English and Hul’q’umi’num

Seven streets to get additional names in First Nations language

Most Read