All about land snails

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 Jump down to •  Physical characteristics  • Slugs  •  Movement   •  Reproduction  • Behavior 

Land snails, along with water snails, are number two on the list of most species on earth, second only to insects. They’ve obviously done well for themselves living quiet lives under cover of darkness. While many sea snails are admired for their beautiful shells, the less flashy land snails usually go unnoticed and sometimes disrespected, especially by gardeners who despair of the damage done by shell-less snails, called slugs.

Most land snails do little if any damage and are beneficial animals. They’re important as food for other wildlife, including mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. They’re also a source of calcium for predators because their shell is made of it. Snails are food for humans, too. Back in olden times, Roman soldiers carried snails with them for food. Today, known by the French term escargot (ess-KAR-go), some snails are gourmet delicacies on the menus of fine restaurants around the world.

Alive Helix pomatia snail on a piece of wood.

Helix pomatia, called “escargot” on restaurant menus. (Waugsberg / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)



Background

Snails are related to other animals with an obvious shell, such as clams, mussels and oysters. They belong to a group of highly varied animals called mollusks (phylum Mollusca). The first snail-like mollusk lived on the seafloor during the late Cambrian Period about 550 million years ago. During the Middle Permian Period, around 286 million years ago, some moved onto land and began breathing with lungs, instead of gills.

They found terrestrial life to their liking and now live just about everywhere, from deserts to tropics, from sea level to mountaintops, and in all parts of the world except Antarctica. Including your yard! Around the world, there are 35,000 species of land snails. Five hundred of them live on North American soil.

Physical description

A snail’s most noticeable feature is, of course, its shell. Its purpose is to protect from weather and predators and hold in moisture. A drawback is that it reduces the snail’s mobility. It also limits their size. Unlike water snails which have buoyancy to lighten the load, land snails must trudge along carrying the full weight. And, what a difference it makes!

The largest sea snail, the giant Australian Trumpet, Syrinx aruanus, can be as long as 3 feet (91 cm). In contrast, the biggest land snail with a shell is thought to be the African Giant Snail, Achatina achatina, with a shell that measures only 7 inches (18 cm). The largest shell-less snail is probably the Pacific Banana Slug, Ariolimax columbianus, just under 10 inches (25 cm) in length. 

The smallest land snail in the world, Acmella nana, discovered in Borneo in 2015, has a shell height of 0.027 inches (0.7 mm) and can pass through the eye of a needle. Another small snail worth noting is Partula rosea, no more than 0.5 inches (12.7 mm). Native to the Pacific Islands, this snail is now extinct in the wild. Half the world’s population—about 100—now live in a special room in a British zoo. You can see how small this snail is here and good photos here

The shell

Snail shells have personality. Some are sporty with bands of color. Some are more sedate with smooth, single-color shells, and still others are bumpy non-comformists. Cuban Painted Snails are show-offs and defy anyone to pass by without stopping to admire.

Thirteen Painted Snails, a Cuban species, in variations of many colors.

Variations of the Cuban Painted snail, Polymita picta. (© Mark Brandon Shutterstock)

Most stay quieter, camouflaging themselves in dull shades of white, gray, brown or amber to hide better in their environment. There are other variables, too, among snails—height and width, number of whorls and ridges, and whether they’re thick or thin. Shells are usually hairless, but some species, mainly as juveniles, have some. It’s thought this helps them cling to wet leaves.

Unidentified species of snail with brown coloration that is crawling across a rocky surface.

Most land snails are a dull color. (bangdoll / Flickr; cc by-sa 3.0



Slugs vary, too, but since they’re essentially shell-less, it’s harder to discern their differences. It often takes an expert’s examination of the structure of the foot or other tiny features to distinguish one species from another. While most are very dull, there are a few that make a dramatic statement, such as the Banana Slug, Ariolimax columbianus.

Banana Slug, Ariolimax columbianus, on the ground.

Banana Slug. (Murray Foubister / Wiki; cc by-sa 2.0



The snail’s shell consists of three layers:

  • Hypostracum (hi-POS-truh-cum), the innermost layer.
  • Ostracum (OSS-truh-cum), the middle layer, consisting mostly of calcium carbonate.
  • Periostracum, the skin, a mix of proteins that hold the shell’s color. After a snail dies, this layer erodes away, exposing the white or gray color of underlying calcium carbonate.

The shell has its start during embryonic development, but it isn’t a living thing. It grows layer-by-layer as cells located on the lip of the aperture (the shell’s opening) release a calcium carbonate material. A liquid at first, it gradually hardens.

During the early stages, the shell undergoes a complicated action, known as torsion, that twists its position from the rear to forward-facing. Torsion to the right (most common) or to the left gives shells a characteristic spiral and is specific to each species.

Light brown snail with yellowish body sitting on a green leaf.

This snail has a right, or dextral, spiral. (Mhy – Pixabay; PD)



To determine whether a shell is coiling right or left, look at the apex, the center point where the shell begins swirling outward. Right (dextral) spirals will go in a clockwise direction toward the aperture. And conversely, left (sinistral) coiling spirals grow counterclockwise.

This snail has a left, or sinistral, spiral. (Soorelis / Pixabay; PD)



As the shell grows larger, its walls grow thicker. (With many sea snails, the shell is nearly unbreakable by the time they reach old age.) Calcium is so important for development that a diet deficient in it will produce a thin, cracked shell. If this persists, it can be fatal. (To prevent it, owners of pet snails provide calcium-rich cuttlebone for their snails to feed on.)

Snails move in and out of their shell through their aperture. Water sails have a hardened “lid,” and can completely close themselves inside. Land snails, however, don’t have one. Instead, some species seal the aperture with a covering of mucus (called an epiphragm) and others with part of their “foot.”

Snails close themselves up for several reasons: for protection from a predator, to escape inclement weather—too hot, too cold, too dry—or to take a rest. They can stay within the shell for long periods, if necessary.

The size of a shell doesn’t necessarily reflect its occupant. Some species have a shell that’s large enough to hide completely within, others have a shell too small for that. The shell of slugs is so tiny it either sits on the tail-end of their body or is internal. Sometimes it’s non-existent.

Slugs and slime

A slug is a snail without a shell, or one that’s miniscule. Otherwise, there’s basically no difference between them. One can easily see its body, which is long, muscular, and slimy. The most common slugs are black or dark-brown and 0.5–2.0 inches long (13 to 51 mm). Slugs are more prone to desiccation than snails with shells because they lack their protective covering.

Two brown Arion vulgaris slugs, a species of The Netherlands, on leaves.

Arion vulgaris slugs, Netherlands species. (Apdency / Wiki; PD)



All snails produce a kind of mucus — lots and lots of it. They need it to move. It also insulates their body and keeps away dirt and germs. It holds moisture, too, so they don’t desiccate. Mucus, or slime, can be thin for easy gliding across a smooth surface or thick to protect them from rough surfaces. When snails go into a sleep-state, mucus plugs the shell opening to keep them moist and safe. Some slugs can produce a cord of mucus to lower themselves on. You may have noticed the shiny slime trail left by snails on sidewalks and flowerpots.

Body: A snail’s body is soft and, like that of an earthworm, lacks a spine or other bones. It’s divided into three parts:

  • Head
  • Foot
  • Visceral mass (digestive, excretory and reproductive organs)

The visceral mass is covered by the “mantle.” The mantle is a skin-like organ that lines the inside of the shell and secretes calcium carbonate for shell-building. 

Brain

Yes, they have a brain! And, it’s surprising. It’s simple compared to other animals, but they’re capable of associative learning and can form long-term memories. In fact, according to surprised neuroscientists studying long-term memory, the only thing limiting snails’ learning ability is the limited number of neurons in their brain. Otherwise, their cellular and molecular processes are almost exactly like that of humans. Another study, of water snails (which also use mucus), showed they’re smart enough to identify and follow the mucus trail of other snails. That saved them time and effort by not having to lay down as much mucus of their own. The researchers believe this probably applies to all snail species.

Color illustration of a snail's internal and external anatomy, with labels.

(A12, JeffDahl / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)



Mouth: A snail’s mouth contains a unique tongue, called the radula (RAD-joo-luh). The radula has rows of hard, course “teeth” on it made of chitin. To eat, a snail draws this rasp-like tongue over food, scraping bits of it into its mouth. They do the same thing with soft stone, such as limestone, which provides the calcium they need for building their shell. All this scraping wears the tip of the tongue away, not surprisingly. But the radula grows from the base throughout the life of a snail, as our fingernails do. Snails don’t bite, but if you allow one to crawl on your hand, it might “taste” you with its tongue, and you’ll feel its raspy teeth. It’s painless and feels like a cat’s tongue.

Tentacles and eyes: A snail’s tentacles are extremely important. All snails have at least one pair, and most land snails have two pairs on their head.

Front of a snail showing its eyes at the tips of the upper tentacles.

Eyes at the tip of the upper tentacles. (Gemma Stiles / Flickr; cc by 2.0)



One pair sits higher than the other and is longer. This pair contains smelling sensors, and the eyes, which look like nothing more than shiny black dots. One eye per tentacle, they’re located at the tip (or at the base of marine species). Snails can move their tentacles back and forth and up and down to get a better view. For them, though, the view is limited because they aren’t able to focus. Consequently, snail vision is so fuzzy it’s limited to the distinctions between light and dark.

The shorter tentacles hold chemoreceptors that can taste and smell. They can also be used for feeling around the immediate environment. At a hint of danger, snails quickly withdraw all four tentacles. Muscles do the work to withdraw them, but blood pressure is what extends them.

Breathing

Snails breathe with only one lung. Muscles in the mantle expand and compress the lung. Air enters and carbon dioxide exits through an opening called the pneumostome, located on the right side of the snail’s body. The pneumostome can be opened and closed at will. Between breaths, it’s kept closed to hold moisture in.

Underside of Cornu aspersum snail climbing a very thin blade of grass, with breathing hole visible.

The foot of Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum, clinging to a plant stem. Note the breathing hole in the shell. (Sean Mack / Wiki; cc by 3.0)



Movement:

Snails move by using a muscular “foot” located on the underside of their body. Large, flat, smooth and very maneuverable, the foot pushes against a surface with a wave-like motion. You may be wondering if snails ever move faster than a “snail’s pace.”

“Will you walk a little faster? said a whiting to the snail, there’s a porpoise close behind us and he’s treading on my tail!” — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ch.10, The Lobster- Quadrille,’ by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Well, it’s all relative, but some of the larger land snails virtually gallop by creating very large waves in their foot. The world’s fastest land snail is thought to be the Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum (formerly Helix aspersa). At its speediest on a nice, smooth surface, it travels about 6 or 7 inches per minute (1.8 or 2.1 m).

To help them move, snails prepare the surface by secreting a thin layer of mucus from a gland at the front of their foot. The mucus reduces friction, but also produces a suction that helps them cling to things, even upside down. If you’ve ever tried to pick one up, you’ve experienced the suction. The mucus also provides a protective layer when needed.  It’s so effective snails can climb over sharp surfaces without harm. Here’s a video showing a snail climbing safely over a knife’s blade — and a razor’s edge!

Slug moving across a red brick surface, leaving a trail of slime behind it.

Slug and slime trail. (Luis Parravicini / Flickr; cc by-nc-sa 2.0)



Snails are surprisingly strong for their size. An experiment with a Cornu aspersum that weighed 0.25 ounces (7.1 g) showed it could vertically drag 2.5 ounces (70.9 g). Another snail, weighing 0.33 ounces (9.4 g), pulled 17 ounces (0.5 kg) horizontally—more than fifty times its weight!

Reproduction
Early summer is courtship time. Land snails are hermaphrodites (her-MOFF-row-dytes), which means their body contains both male and female sex organs. That being the case, it seems they’d hardly need a mate, but they do!

Two brown-colored snails with their genitals joined together.

Snails mating. (Linda / Flickr; cc by 2.0)



Snails mate by aligning their bodies so that the penis (yes, they have one!) of each is inserted into the vagina (that, too) of the other. Mating may go on for several hours. After they exchange sperm, each stores the sperm in a special pouch and uses it to fertilize its eggs, sometimes over the course of several months. Before all this, though, there’s a courtship ritual. They caress each other with their tentacles, nibble at lips, and rock their bodies back and forth. It goes on for hours before mating commences. It seems, well, rather sweet and romantic.

But, not so fast! With a few species, there’s a shocking twist: Each pierces the body of the other with a long, sharp spear, called a “love dart.” Whoa! That sure changes the mood and begs the question, “Why?” Despite our shocked reaction to this, theirs is to get it on! Apparently, it stimulates them.

So, do they mind getting harpooned? Well, yes; yes they do! It hurts, and there’s research indicating they frequently jostle to stab, but not be stabbed. For a relieved 30 percent of them, the other’s love dart misses or fails to penetrate.

Love dart

A love dart is more than sadomasochistic foreplay, however. It prevents a minor catastrophe: It happens that more than ninety-nine percent of the sperm exchanged by the snails gets digested internally before finding its way to the safety of the storage pouch. That reduces the number of fertilized eggs significantly, of course. The love dart is nature’s extreme solution: It transfers a mucus that seems to prevent the snail’s body from digesting too much semen.

Cluster of white snail eggs nestled within dirt or other brown matter.

Snail eggs. (Chai / Wiki; cc by 2.0)



Land snails may lay their eggs singly or in clusters of dozens, depending on the species. They might bury their eggs in soft, moist soil by digging down with their foot or hide them in damp, protected places like leaf litter and under logs. 

The eggs hatch in about two to four weeks, depending on the species and favorable weather (they don’t hatch until conditions are right.) As soon as they hatch, the hungry snails begin feeding on their eggshell, which is rich in calcium. They may also consume any other shells they find, even if the egg is still unhatched! At this stage, they’re transparent, but over the next few weeks, slowly take on color. In about three months they’ll have adult coloration. They reach adult size and sexual maturity in two to three years.

Behavior
Land snails are usually active at night when humidity is high, but they may come out in the daytime when it rains to do some foraging. If conditions get too dry, they estivate, which is a stage of sleep that’s not as deep as hibernation, and stay that way until it rains. In winter, many species hibernate, in which their heart slows down from about thirty-six beats per minute to only three or four and oxygen use is reduced to one-fiftieth of normal.

It’s possible that land snails also sleep in a regular sort of way, aside from estivation and hibernation. You know, a nap. Scientists are wondering because research on pond snails has shown they sleep for two or three days at a time, so why not land snails?

Epiphragm sealing the opening of a hibernating Roman Snail, Helix pomatia.

Epiphragm sealing the opening of a hibernating Roman Snail (Helix pomatia). (Hannes Grobe / Wiki; cc by-sa 2.5)



Whether they’re estivating or hibernating, or maybe just “sleeping,” snails seal their aperture with an epiphragm, which is made of dried mucus. The epiphragm is usually transparent and sometimes “glues” the snail to a surface, such as a shady wall, rock or tree branch. In temperate climates, some slugs hibernate underground in winter, but adults of other species die.

Snails spend their active time searching for food and eating. Also, to find mates, but they’re otherwise not social. They may be seen hiding in groups, but they don’t communicate other than to follow snail trails to find a mate or, for the few carnivorous ones, to find prey.

Habitat

All snails live where they can typically find moisture and darkness. Well, almost all: There are a few hardy species that live in semi-arid regions and survive by estivating when weather conditions are dry, which is most of the time. These snails bury themselves and withdraw into their shell, plugging the opening to conserve moisture. When it rains, there’s a rush of activity—they must eat, mate and lay eggs before the environment dries up again.

Other snails live in such places as marshes, woodlands, pond margins, flower and vegetable gardens, under leaves, mulch, rocks, logs, in cracks and crevices, and under flowerpots and other fixtures. Slugs, unencumbered by a shell, can squeeze into spots the others can’t.

Typically, snails stay within a small range, but they can easily be affected by disturbances in their environment. They’ll disperse to new areas, if possible, but since they’re unable to do it quickly, they may not escape a dangerous change. Mostly, snails are dispersed through flooding and streams. Also, humans distribute them in soil or in pots of flowers purchased at a garden center. Some have been found attached to the fur of an animal. There are also claims that tiny snail eggs can be swept up by the wind.

Food sources 
Land snails take advantage of whatever food they find within crawling distance and there’s a lot of variety in what they eat. The majority are herbivorous and graze on plants, fungi, and algae. A few New Zealand species are carnivorous and feed on snails and nematodes (tiny worms).

Close up of the head of a snail that's eating a carrot.

Pet snail eating a carrot. (twistypigeon / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Snails also eat empty snail shells, sap, animal droppings, and even inorganic stuff, such as limestone and cement (for the calcium content).

Life span

The life span of land snails depends on the species. Heavy predation by beetles, birds and other animals means most snails don’t make it through their first year. Many, in fact, are eaten as eggs. Those that do make it live around two or three years. Captive snails have lived ten to fifteen years or more.

Predators
Predators take a huge toll. They include mammals, such as rats, moles, badgers and humans, as well as birds, toads, frogs, crabs, turtles, beetles and ants.  A species goes extinct;”Lonely George,” the last of his kind

*Top photo: Mrooczek262 / Pixabay; PD)

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