Snail, a garden guest, not garden pest!

Snail - gasteropod

In our gardens, every living creature has a place. It’s all a question of balance! Precious services are rendered even by every single snail in our lots, even though their population must be controlled. Let’s take a closer look at this surprising little gastropod…

The Snail

  • Snail key factsIt is a land mollusk, part of the Gastropod family.
  • There are thousands upon thousands of species. In Europe, four are particularly common: the Little Gray, the Burgundy snail, the hedge snail and the garden snail. In North America, Little Gray goes by the name “brown garden snail” Cornu aspersum (formerly Helix aspersa) and “decollate snails” are a class of snails that eats other snails (Ruminia decollata).
  • Usually, its size is between 3/4ths of an inch to 2 inches (2 to 6cm).
  • A snail’s lifespan typically is around 5 years, but cunning ones can make it to 10 years of age! Some people raise them as pets.
  • It is most active at night and on rainy days.
  • A group of snailsIn winter, it hibernates, finding a nice hidden spot under a shingle, a slab of wood or around the compost pile. Some species gather together on a branch or twig. Such a group of snails is called a “rout” or a “walk” of snails, even though they stay put!

A snail’s body: strange but effective!

The shell, similar to limestone, comes in many different shapes and colors. It protects the snail from predators, and also insulates it from extreme cold or heat. When danger lurks, the snail retreats inside its shell and starts spitting out mucus, a slimy substance that quickly forms a bubbly cloud around it.

  • It has two pairs of tentacle-like antennae that help it find its way around. The longest pair, nearer the body, have tiny eyes at each end. Snails are near-sighted and can’t see very well. The lower, shorter pair that’s nearer the tip of the head carry taste buds. Thanks to these, the snail can smell the air, food, and locate a mating partner when the season is right! Whenever an antenna touches something, it folds back and retracts very quickly.
  • The snail has a rough tongue it uses to eat. This raspy tongue is called a radula. There are tiny teeth on it, nearly 2000 of them!

How does a snail move?

The snail’s body is a mass of muscle in which the vital organs are sheathed. It’s called the foot of the snail. Saliva is what makes movement possible.

Speed of a snail and why there's frothy foamAs the foot contracts from front to back, it releases mucus to coat the ground as it goes forward. How fast is a snail? About one millimeter per second.

Frothy foam around a snail: this is the snail’s way of protecting itself from aggression.

  • If hiding in its shell doesn’t help, it will secrete a mass of foamy bubbles out to distract and scare predators away.

Snail reproduction

Weird or wonderful, in any case a quirky gift of nature, snails are actually hermaphrodite. Each snail has both female and male genital organs, both of which intervene in the reproduction process. Two snails must meet in order to reproduce.

  • Snail reproductionSince it’s deaf and nearly blind, a snail uses its front tentacles to find a partner. It follows the trail left by mucus as the snail moves along.
  • When they’ve found each other, the snails start a sensuous mating dance. This mating cuddle can last a long time!
  • They violently thrust a sharp mucus-covered organ into each other. This is called the “love dart”.

Love dart: The mucus that coats the love dart is loaded with a special class of hormones. These hormones protect the sperm from simply being dissolved by the receiving snail, thus ensuring that genetic material carries on to the next generation.

Baby snails

This curious mating ritual can last up to ten hours. Both snails penetrate and fertilize each other.

  • Baby snailA few days later, mature eggs are ready for laying. They go their own ways, dig a hole in the ground, and lay between 20 and 100 eggs inside.
  • Two weeks later, the eggs start hatching.
  • Baby snails already have a shell when they hatch, but it’s soft and nearly transparent.
  • It takes them two years to reach adulthood.
  • Once it’s grown up, a single snail can mate and lay up to six times a year.

Benefits of having snails in the garden

Finding snails in your garden is actually a good sign. It proves you have good-quality soil, since snails are very picky and flee even the smallest traces of pollution. It must however be said: snails are a real burden when it comes to protecting hard-grown salads and cabbage.

Nonetheless, certain species of snails are truly useful in the garden. Some of them, like the Ruminia species, eat eggs and larvae of other snails and slugs, and digest insect or worm cadavers to release their nutrients in the soil. Others are scavenger snails, breaking down dead organic matter, moss, and fungus and mushrooms (even the poisonous ones). Thus, snails are truly part of a balanced garden.

Decollate snail

Regulating snail populations

  • Attract birds to your garden. Many species, thrushes in particular, love feasting on snails.
  • Snail trap with a logLay down a slab of wood or a clay tile wherever snails tend to gather. During the day, they’ll hide underneath it. All you’ll need to do is pick them up and move them to a better place, or even feed them to their natural predators.
  • Spread ashes, sawdust or coffee grounds around your growing beds. Snails won’t be able to slither across them.
  • The main predators of snails are hedgehog, birds (including chickens, a welcome treat during hot weather), toad, frogs… and humans!

Did you know…?

  • In some countries, harvesting snails is regulated. For example, it’s authorized from July to March because that’s not when snails reproduce.
  • Almost all snail species are hermaphrodites. The only exceptions are a few specific freshwater and seawater snail species. For these, each snail is either male or female, but not both.

A word of wisdom:

“Life is what our inner self wants it to be. We shape and form it like a snail builds its shell.”

Jules Renard, a French author of old.

L. D.

Images: CC BY-SA 4.0: Juan José de Haro; own work: Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois; Pixabay: Benno Wegener, Thomas B., Dimitris Vetsikas, Daniel Köchli, Josch, Krzysztof Niewolny, pixelia

Written by Lydie Dronet | With over 20 years in the field of animal care, Lydie shares her paws-on expertise and experience. Other topics she loves delving into are nutrition and the medicinal uses of plants.