Land Snails are hermaphrodites meaning their body contains the sex organs of both female and male. Interestingly they do mate, the very reason for this article is the mating, guess this is one of the rare moments when a mating snail is caught on camera. They mate leisurely like turtles and seem gentle. I sat there watching the beauty and glory of creation in its rudimentary form for a while, oblivious of passer-by’s. Luckily after an hour, my husband was kind enough to let me to go back there to watch them.
Perhaps these are one of its kinds who can taste sex from both perspectives… wondering if they are more advanced than most beings on earth. Before mating they have a courtship ritual which could last for hours. They caress each other with their tentacles, nibble at lips and rock their bodies back and forth. Oddly I was awestruck to learn that there are many species which pierce the body of the other with a long, sharp spear, called a “love dart”, something like stimulating or to indicate their readiness!
It is said that more than 99 percent of the millions of sperms they’ll exchange are digested by the snail before finding their way to the safety of the storage pouch. In other words it reduces the number of fertilized eggs in a major way. So Nature provided an extreme solution, transfer the (specially ordered) mucus to prevent a snail’s from digesting so much semen.
It is said that during the mating action the body is aligned in such a way that male organ of each is inserted into the female organ of the other. During the process they exchange sperm, then each stores the sperm in a special storage pouch and uses it to fertilize their own eggs, some times over the course of several months. In the right environment they can lay hundreds of eggs and seems like these extra ordinary beings are here to stay even after humans manage to kill each other.
Snails produce mucus, lots and lots of it for lubrication, though it looks repulsive to human eye, the usage is beyond anyone’s perception. Mucus can be thin for easy gliding across a smooth surface or thick to protect them from rough surfaces. To begin with it provides a protective layer between a surface and the snail’s fragile body aiding them effectively when they climb over sharp surface without harm. It helps them move, insulates their body, keep away dirt and germs, and it holds moisture so they don’t desiccate. Amazingly when snails go into a sleep-state (depending upon the conditions either they hibernate or estivate), even it plugs the shell opening to keep them moist and safe. Last but not the least it prevents them from over digesting the semen and like the Indian TV commercial would go, perhaps it might help them find their mating partners! Hahahahah..
Their glossy shells, usually forming a logarithmic spiral can be sinistral or dextral is made of calcium carbonate which they constantly lug around, protects them from weather, certain predators and most importantly to hold the moisture. Moisture is very essential for their survival. A molluscs (phylum Millusca) with 43,000 species to boast are found just about anywhere from deserts to tropics, from sea level to mountain tops, practically in all parts of the earth were evolved even before the man did. They come in different shapes, patterning, texture – some smooth while some bumpy colours, mostly hairless and sizes including the giant African snails and the shell less slugs which gardeners hate them their love for the plants. If required they can withdraw into the shell to escape inclement weather (too hot, too cold or too dry), protection from predator or simply to take rest and are capable of staying for a lengthy periods if necessary.
Even though their shell has no life, its start during embryonic development itself and come out from the pearly eggs with it. At birth they are delicate, transparent and colourless, and eventually over a period of time it hardens and becomes colourful. Shell’s shape and form is unique and specific to each species. In layman’s understanding it is something like the human hair or nail! In fact like the human nail, their inimitable rasp-like tongue called radula which grows from the base throughout the life is used to scrape food. They flourish in right conditions particularly with the availability of calcium. It is so important for them that if they don’t get enough calcium, they are known to devour each other’s shells!! If the shells are attacked then you can see the visible dry or dull shells. Otherwise the healthy shell gleams with freshness.
Life span of snails vary depending upon the species from anywhere between one year to ten plus years. Calcium rich Snails are food for wildlife – birds, reptiles, insects and mammals including man (particular species only – a delicacy sold at fancy restaurants). Even it is farmed, what is known as helici-culture but eating it won’t make someone hermaphrodites. Olden day’s Roman soldiers carried snails with them for food. If some likes to devour them, some consider them pests and yet some others like to keep them as pets too.