Jul/Aug 2006For Wildlife Watchers: Garden Snailby Rob Simbeck, photography by Phillip Jones

You don't have to wonder, about the first person who ate a duck or a buffalo. Given hunger and a spear, everything falls together quite nicely, especially when you've got fire in the picture. Fish aren't much of a stretch either, although developing nets and hooks must have taken plenty of time and head-scratching. There are protein-rich places, though, where the modern imagination travels only reluctantly.

Somebody, for instance, had to be the first to pry open a clam and think, "Well, this rumbling in my stomach isn't going to go away by itself. I'd better eat this." Asian markets offer plenty of items that require more hunger than I can muster on an ordinary workday. And then there are snails. I don't know about you, but if that bit of culinary advancement had depended on me, we'd still be waiting, especially given that the development of garlic butter was well down the road. We are talking, mind you, about a mollusk that travels by secreting mucus from its foot.

Someone, though, finally stood there and debated for a moment, pulled a snail from under the rock he'd just turned over, extracted it, turned to his buddies, said, "Down the hatch!" and took one giant leap for mankind.

These days, farmers raise them - 10,000 per nine-square-yard plot, primarily in Spain, France, Italy and Morocco - and ship them to (you can decide whether I am using the following word advisedly) gourmets worldwide.

Garden snail
Common South Carolina genera include Ventridens and Gastrodonta

Description: Varied lengths; whorled shell; muscular body, pale grey.

Habitat and Range: Moist, alkaline soil. Common in and near gardens. Common in South Carolina.

Reproduction: Hermaphroditic, although snails prefer cross-fertilizing.

Viewing Tips: Active at night in warm weather. During the day, check under rocks and wood.

Our appetite for snails has had more than its share of unforeseen negative consequences for people and nature worldwide. The trouble is that although it is relatively small and slow, the snail is no slouch when it comes to its own dining habits. Introduced into new ecosystems by people who consider it a delicacy - in addition to its accidental introduction - some species of snails have become huge pests as they dine on crops and ornamentals. California and Australia have had particularly rough times with the brown garden snail.

In South Carolina, snails have not had a huge economic impact, and most of the damage gardeners face here comes from the snail's unshelled relative, the slug. There are plenty of species of snails in the state, with the genera Ventridens and Gastrodonta, from the family Zonitidae, being among the most common. They feed at night on small bits of organic matter, moving their ribbon-like tongues over their food. Symbiotic bacteria in their crops help them digest cellulose, which can even be in the form of damp cardboard.

To see if you've got snails, simply look for slime trails in the dirt. Those trails are composed of mucus, which facilitates movement powered by contractions in the flat, muscular foot. The mucus has enough adhesive power that snails can crawl upside down and is thick enough to allow them to crawl unharmed over razor blades. Quickness, of course, isn't their forte. Even turtles are speed demons compared with snails, which move at the rate of .03 mile per hour.

Snails and slugs are gastropods - it means stomach/foot - and are related to clams and oysters. There are perhaps 50,000 species, which are found in fresh and salt water and on land; land species have adapted to pretty much every terrestrial environment, including deserts. They range in size from .20 inch to more than 2 feet in length, with the largest land snail, an African variety, measuring about 8 inches. Snail shells, generally coiled in a spiral pattern, are composed of calcium carbonate, so snails do well in alkaline and poorly in sandy soil. The shell offers protection and a retreat, a place to retain moisture during hot summer spells and to hibernate, living off stored fat, in winter. In severe conditions, summer or winter, a snail will secrete a layer of mucus that stiffens over the mouth of the shell, sealing it in. During the day, snails generally hide in crevices or under ground litter.

A snail's head has a mouth opening and two pairs of tentacles, with eyes located at the tips of the upper pair. Snails have poor eyesight and no hearing and rely on touch and smell. Their bodies have a visceral hump, which contains the organs and is protected by the shell, a mantle, which lines the outer wall of the shell, and a foot. Most land snails are hermaphrodites, with both male and female sex organs; most can both fertilize eggs and lay them but prefer to mate with another individual.

For some larger snails, including the Helicids and the Cepaea species, mating is a four- to twelve-hour process that involves pressing their sides together and inserting a calcified "love dart" that helps ensure fertilization. A few days after mating, snails will deposit spherical eggs in a nest dug with the foot and covered with soil, mucus and excrement. Snails can lay eggs about every six weeks, provided the environment is warm and moist.

Finding snails isn't normally a problem. Most gardens will have them, and they're often under rocks or boards in good weather. Getting rid of them, should that become desirable, is more of a problem. There are plenty of ways to go about it, and only one of them involves - well, let's just call it gastronomic bravery I consider above and beyond the call of duty.

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