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April 05, 2005

Snail sex

Carl Zimmer wrote recently of the interesting and more or less sadomasochistic mating practices of common garden snails, which reminded me of a piece I wrote about ten years back. (This should do interesting things to my Google search strings.)

Helix aspersa

Killing time after washing the last two weeks' accumulated fleas and Bay mud off Zeke, keeping him company outside as he dried off, I did a bit of weeding in the garden. Under a mallow that's been struggling to survive the ravages of plant eaters, I found a couple of big Helix aspersa, the French garden snail that everyone out here hates so much. I usually toss them out into the street when I find them, and today was no exception. I picked one up, and the other came with it.

They were mating. I'd never seen snail sex before, and took an eager closer look. Snails are hermaphroditic: each individual possesses both male and female reproductive organs. I don't know whether this is the usual procedure, but these two were copulating simultaneously: each had inserted its penis into the other's vulva, if that is the appropriate terminology for mollusk sex organs.

A couple of Brazilian pepper tree leaves had stuck to the snails' feet: I removed them for a better look. The silvery slime that snails secrete as a means of locomotion is conspicuously absent from snail genitalia, which are shaped not at all unlike the equivalent human organs. An opalescent pale white, they look as if they have been carved from white jade in an adaptation of Japanese erotic carving techniques.

The snails seemed a bit taken aback at my handling. Fixated, though, on the biological imperative that had enraptured them, they began to pull their shells tightly together, as if drawing the blinds on a voyeuristic passerby.

I gently, slowly, pulled them apart. First one and then the other penis emerged from their respective sheathes. Each was tipped with a double-headed "glans," about three times the width of its two-millimeter thick shaft. And surprise of surprises, each had extruded a two-inch-long, translucent strand that resembled nothing so much as a fiber optics cable. Sperm packets? Something else? I don't know.

There are times when the most mundane pursuits can bring awareness of the greatest mysteries of life. These common garden pests had given my morning a bit of mystery, a bit of poetry. I thanked them for that as I tossed them into the street.

Posted by Chris Clarke at April 5, 2005 01:17 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Great anecdote, Chris.

The more I learn about gastropods, the more incredibly rich the animal kingdom at large becomes. Too often overlooked, snails and their cousins deserve more popular attention. Even the scienctific study of gastropods seems to be in it's infancy.

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at April 5, 2005 02:37 PM
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Speaking as a lifelong suburb/city girl: "Yecch!"

But beautifully written "yecch," as always.

Posted by: Kathy at April 5, 2005 03:07 PM
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Garden snails are old news. Pictures of Leopold slugs getting it on are the new hotness.

Posted by: the_bone at April 5, 2005 08:36 PM
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You pulled them apart! They, who clearly wanted privacy? Sheesh, the sex police are everywhere!

;-)

Jarrett

Posted by: Jarrett at April 5, 2005 10:29 PM
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snails in the street! when we lived in santa cruz and had a real street in front of the house, as opposed to our present semi-rural situation, we tossed so many snails in the auto path i worried the pavement would become slick and cars might slide into the yard. often the snails died in flagrante delicto.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at April 6, 2005 08:40 AM
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This is a test comment. Paul, holler if you see this, OK?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at April 16, 2005 09:27 AM
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I got the email. I replied to it, but I got that too.

I take it that this means I'm the comment spam deletor until you get back? I tested yesterday and my old login still works.

Posted by: Paul Tomblin at April 16, 2005 11:05 AM
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