Snails have a messed up sex life.
They are worthy of our admiration, but it is not easy to love snails, especially if you have a vegetable garden.
Where did they come from?
Snails evolved about 500 million years ago in the ocean, but they are now found in nearly all ecosystems on earth from high mountains, rainforests, and deserts, down to the deepest ocean trenches. Cornu aspersum, the brown snail you find in your garden, started in the Mediterranean, but it is now found all over the world. Not bad for a creature that has a top speed of 45 mph (that’s metres per hour!).
So why are snails so successful? They are seriously tough! Like most creatures that evolved in the ocean, their biggest challenge is desiccation, but they have evolved some really clever strategies to stay moist. As you know, they can retreat into their shell to hide, but have you ever found a snail with a hard cover over the mouth of the shell? Or one stuck fast to a surface?
They use dried mucous to protect themselves during dry spells. Snails can stay in their shell like this for up to three years without eating or drinking! If they find themselves on cargo being loaded onto a ship, they can just hunker down and enjoy the ride. This is why brown garden snails have become so widespread.
Snails are Legend
Did you know that your slimy garden snails may be the inspiration for the legend of cupid?
You see, when a mummy snail and a daddy snail love each other very much…they try to shoot each other with “love darts.” Very romantic!
People used to think that these love darts were full of aphrodisiac, hence the flying naked babies myth. The thing is, snails are hermaphrodites, which means that when they are having a very special adult cuddle, either of them can be the sperm donor (male) or the sperm recipient (female). Sperm is easy to produce, but eggs cost a lot more energy, so it is in a snail’s interest to be the sperm donor.
So, after six hours of foreplay (yes 6!), the snails try to line themselves up to shoot their love dart into their partner. Sometimes they miss, sometimes it goes into internal organs, and sometimes it ends up through their head and pokes out the other side! Doesn’t matter, once it is in it releases a hormone that makes the darted snail become the sperm recipient, and then mating can proceed.
So the snail that does the darting literally makes the other snail his female. And you thought your relationships were complicated!