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All hail the snails!

Anguispira (snail of Jackson County, Al). Courtesy of Dr. R. Wayne Van Devender, Appalachian State University.
Anguispira (snail of Jackson County, Al). Courtesy of Dr. R. Wayne Van Devender, Appalachian State University.

More than 200 species call Alabama home

By Emmett Burnett

Referenced in the Bible, depicted in ancient art, and oh so tasty, snails have been with us since recorded history. Most tote on-board housing, live within inches of food, and are synonymous with ‘slow.’ But whatever they are doing has worked for millenniums, so why hurry?

The little slip-sliding JELL-O on the half shell is in no rush to leave us either. Alabama has the most diverse snail species in the U.S, making the Heart of Dixie a mollusk mecca.

Pomacea paludosa
Pomacea paludosa

“I wish we knew exactly how many kinds the state has,” notes Dr. Paul Johnson, Program Supervisor of the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center near Marion. “Jackson County alone has over a hundred species. Of the 710 freshwater species described in the U.S., about 210 live in Alabama. ”

In addition to freshwater, snails are available in marine and terrestrial packages too. They come in shells, or the convertible, non-shelled ‘slug.’ All are represented here. And most of us are unaware when experiencing a close encounter of the slime kind.

In fact, according to Dr. Kathryn Perez, professor in the Department of Biology, University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, “When walking on your lawn, you probably stand on a dozen of them.” Thousands live among us virtually undetectable.

Perez adds, “Many species, including Alabama’s, are no larger than a period on a printed page. Millions – pinhead sized – climb on blades of grass, or crawl in soil, embed in crevices, and maneuver over terrain without our knowledge.”

And if you think snails travel slowly, wait until you hear how they sleep. Some species can hibernate, without food or water, for over 50 years. In perspective, a snail bedding down during the 1960s appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show could wake up today, wondering how it went.

Perez recalls, “There have been situations of snail specimens in museums, for decades, motionless, preserved, and assumed dead – until one day they suddenly start crawling in the display case.”

The crawl is actually a glide, made possible by lubrication, from excreted mucus, from a mucus-embedded body. Escargot anyone?

Remarkable creatures

Doug Shelton is a malacologist – one who studies mollusks, clams, and similar creatures. Based in Mobile, he works with the Alabama Malacological Research Center, and explains just how remarkable snails are:

“It has two eyes, each mounted on the tips of stalks, protruding from its head,” Shelton says. “The eyes/stalks move independently of each other.” Depending on species, snails have varying degrees of sense of smell, vision, and taste. Most eat vegetation, which isn’t a problem. A snail can have up to 25,000 teeth.

“They don’t chew,” Shelton adds. “It eats by rasping or grinding its teeth over food.” The process is similar to the teeth of a chainsaw kicking sawdust off of wood. And snails do two things well: eat and multiply. We have a problem.

Snail_Pomacea maculatum egg clutches - Oct. 30, 2013 (2)
Pomacea maculatum (apple snail eggs); BELOW: Pomacea paludosa (apple snail plate). Courtesy of Dr. Paul Johnson and the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center

Experts are concerned with the aquatic menace of Mobile, Pomacea Maculata, commonly known as the island apple snail, because it’s about the size of an apple. Apples are about the only plant products it doesn’t eat, only because apples don’t grow in water.

Apple snails are showing up in alarming numbers in Mobile Municipal (Langan) Park. It is not native to Alabama but probably introduced to our waters as a home aquarium escapee. It is anything but a pet.

“The concern is that apple snails will find a way into the delta,” Shelton says. “If that happens, it will be hard to stop.” A prolific breeder, it lays thousands of bright pink eggs in clusters. They hatch and start eating, depleting food sources for other animals and potentially altering the aquatic eco-system’s balance. Fortunately apple snails only live underwater, except sticking out just long enough to lay eggs above the waterline. Babies then hatch and dive back in.

“For the most part, snails are beneficial,” Johnson says. “They are ecological facilitators, food to other animals, and excellent at moving nutrients.” He adds, “In aquatics, the presence of snails is an indicator of good water quality.” But around the house they are an indicator of “it’s time to take action.”

Snails not only love Alabama’s wilderness, but they are quite fond of your place, too. “A few aren’t that bothersome,” says Danny Lipford, TV and radio host of “Today’s Homeowner with Danny Lipford.” “Basically, down here, snails and slugs have the same patterns. They like Alabama’s high humidity and moist areas in our yards.”

Lipford says that a few onsite snails may not cause much harm, but they are visiting you for one reason only: to eat. Main course for residential areas are container gardens, crops, and landscapes. “They are generally regarded as pests because of that unsightly silver streak path they leave and their appetite for vegetation.”

Solutions from your kitchen

But there is good news. According to Lipford, “Most home remedies you’ve heard about for eliminating snails, work. Many are non-toxic.”

He recommends several: Coffee grounds repel slugs. “I guess they don’t like the coffee smell. It doesn’t kill them but they move away” – as if a mucus secreting, stalk-eyed creature that resembles something from Star Wars can be picky.

Other remedies suggested by Lipford include salad dressing. “I’m not sure what type, but snails don’t like salad dressing,” he laughs.

And try beer – on snails, that is. Beer attracts snails because of the fermenting / grainy odor. They will fall in a bowl of beer and drown in it like a mollusk frat party.

Salt is also a common deterrent but fatal, and toxic to almost every living thing it touches, including plants. A weak solution of ammonia in water sprayed on the area repels snails too, but the smell may repel you as well.

From the elevations of Lookout Mountain to the shores of Dauphin Island, snails are survivors. Most are beneficial. Some are not. But these little guys were in our woods and property long before it was our woods and property. Most harmful species were introduced here from somewhere else.

Today, some will hibernate. Fifty years from now, they will wake up, and still be here. Many of us won’t be. There are advantages to moving at a snail’s pace.