The beauty of the backyard snail

Examining the snail up close, you appreciate her refined sensitivity

  • Thu Nov 26th, 2015 10:00am
  • Life

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.