The snail from ‘Old Zealand’

The snail from ‘Old Zealand’

Curator Invertebrates Rodrigo Salvador tells the story of the tragedy and survival of a Dutch garden snail whose shell ended up at Te Papa.

One of my favourite things about reorganizing our natural history collections is that I will eventually come across a small treasure.

Sometimes, those treasures might have great scientific value, like these land snails from South America. Other times, they can hide a curious story beyond their scientific value, like these type specimens of Vietnamese door snails.

So, it comes as no surprise that I found yet another snail in our collection whose story is worth telling.

Garden-variety snails

I was working on the drawers of garden snails, or Cornu aspersum to use their scientific name. Keeping tabs on exotic species is as important as knowing our natives because it enables ecological and conservation studies.

We have many specimens of garden snails, both from New Zealand (and other places where it was introduced) and from the species’ original distribution in Europe.

A garden snail on a green mossy surface
A garden snail from Alòs de Balaguer, Spain, 2007. Photo by F.T. Gort via iNaturalist. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

‘Old Zealand’

Garden snails are cool and all, but they are very common. So, there’s not much that could make one of these specimens particularly interesting. Or so I thought.

The first thing that got my attention was the old label that accompanied one of the shells. It read: Terneuzen, Zeeland, Holland. So, that was a garden snail who came all the way from OG Zealand.

That was enough to make me stop and pick up the shell for a closer look. And that’s when I realized: the shell had a huge scar.

Three views of a snail shell on a black background
The shell of the Zeeland garden snail (in three views) showing a large scar on its last whorl. Specimen NMNZ M.255976. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Scars of the past

But how can a shell have a scar?

Sometimes, a portion of the shell is broken – usually, it’s the section closest to the shell’s aperture. Typically, that happens because of a predator’s attack.

If the snail survives, its body will start to fix the broken edge of the shell and a scar will form in that place. In a way, this is very similar to what happens when we break a bone.

The scar is visibly different from the rest of the shell, as can be seen in the photo above.

After the breakage is fixed and the scar is in place, the shell continues to grow incrementally – that is, by adding shell material (calcium carbonate) to the edge of the aperture.

However, the shell is a complex 3D coiled structure. So, once it’s broken and scarred, the shell will usually grow with some rough edges or at a weird angle. And that’s what happened to our snail from Old Zealand’.

But, as you can see from the photo, this was not just a minor breakage due to a predator’s attack. The scar is too big, meaning a very large section of the shell was destroyed. In all likelihood, this was a much more tragic event.

Survival of the luckiest

Garden snails are a common sight in the Netherlands, crawling on the sidewalks or across the bike lanes. They are particularly numerous early in the morning or right after the rain.

Over the years, I’ve spent quite some time in the Dutch countryside, and am well acquainted with the type of damage suffered by our Zeeland snail.

This snail was either stepped on by a careless pedestrian or – more likely, this being the Netherlands and all – run over by a bike. I’ve seen plenty of them and whenever that happened it ruined my day.

A tree-lined cycle path with a cyclist in the far distance.
Bicycle lane in Dronten, The Netherlands, 2011. Photo by M. Ahsmann via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Needless to say, most snails will die after such a tragic incident. But this one survived long enough to heal and to grow even further and then later be collected by someone to become part of a private shell collection.

Maybe it was kept exactly because it had that scar, a tell-tale sign of its history. Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Either way, the shell made its way to Te Papa.

An archive for the ages

Throughout the decades, Te Papa – and our predecessor the Dominion Museum – has received many private collections. They can be any size from a small bunch of shells, like the Vietnamese snails I mentioned above, to unbelievably large collections, like that of naturalist Henry Suter. All of them became part of our national natural history collection.

This has been, and still is, a common practice in museums worldwide – ensuring valuable specimens are not lost to science. And not only to science. Natural history collections are an archive of life on Earth and will only increase in value. After all, in the near future, many of these species won’t be here with us anymore and will only be known through museum specimens.

2 Comments

  1. I remember bucket loads of snails being destroyed or thrown over the fence from my parents’ garden. But I’ve become a softy and hate the crunch of them when I walk about at night. I read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by E T Bailey. In my garden I do nothing about them but the blackbirds do. Mind you I’m not a serious gardener.

  2. Interesting and makes me feel ever so slightly guilty, having just destroyed hundreds of these invaders. They are very partial to kakabeak and killed most of a large planting, aided by rabbits. An observation that may be of value is that they seem to find the inner glaze of the popular cardboard plant guards to their taste and they shelter inside between meals. I’ve dealt with cup to 40 at a time from these refuges.

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