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An introduction to the slimy gastropods.
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The world in a shell
There are thousands of species of gastropods, from the iridescent abalone to the mundane garden snail. Most we almost never see, because they’re either too small or live in remote places. But the species we do see—mostly a smattering of terrestrial shell-sporting snails and naked slugs—we tend not to like. They’re slow, slimy, and sometimes even associated with diseases, like rat lungworm.
That makes it all the more surprising that snails are—and have long been—associated with luxury. In ancient Rome, purple snail dye was worth its weight in silver. At L’Escargot Montorgueil in Paris, the cheapest snails are six for $15. And a snail facial will set you back $250 in Tokyo. The snail’s story has as many twists and turns as its shell. But don’t worry—we’ll start slow.
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By the digits
66 million lbs (30 million kg): Escargot the French consume each year
150,000: Estimated gastropod species
0.06 miles (0.1 km): Distance a garden snail can cover in an hour
30,000: Years humans have eaten snails
$6 million: Amount the state of Florida has spent to capture and kill invasive giant African snails imported by a religious group that used the mucus in healing rituals
0.03 inches (0.08 cm): Height of the world’s smallest snail, Angustopila dominikae
3.9 inches (10 cm): Height of the world’s biggest snail, Achatina achatina (a giant African snail)
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The way we 🐌 now
Raising escargot is no easy feat—especially in the United States, where garden snails are treated as pests. Taylor Knapp, owner of Peconic Escargot on Long Island, worked with the US Department of Agriculture for three years to develop a containment protocol for snails in order to get his farm off the ground.
Knapp lets most of his slimy progeny grow into escargot, which he sells fresh to chefs around the country. But he also collects a portion of the eggs, which he salts and sells as snail caviar.
But don’t just go out, grab a snail, and fry it up. Snails sold for escargot are “ranched”—isolated and raised on feed for a couple of weeks—so they purge any toxins they’ve munched on. They also have to be cleaned of their own waste as they’re readied for the table. Finally, they’re “fiddly and time-consuming” to cook; the fanciness of the dish is more in the preparation.
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Most snails are right-handed, as evidenced by the clockwise spiral of their shell. The (very rare) left-handed or sinistral snail tends to be unlucky in love. Just ask Jeremy, the lonely lefty who mated just before his death in 2017, and then only thanks to an international network of scientists who searched high and low for a left-handed match.
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Explain it like I’m 5!
Snails use “muscular pulses” to move, rippling from tail to head to push slowly along, and in 2011 a Stanford graduate student calculated that it’s enough to inch forward without greasing the skids.
But slime allows the snail to climb. When the snail lays down the slime—a mere 10–20 micrometers thick—it’s very sticky and behaves like an elastic solid. When the snail pushes down on the slime with its muscles, it creates waves that shear the slime, which begins behaving like a viscous liquid (pdf). When the snail stops putting pressure on the slime, it gets sticky fast, in a tenth of a second. And it works on the man-made “extremes of anti-adhesive non-slip materials.”
It’s impressive but hard. Gastropod crawling requires the most energy per kilogram to move of any kind of animal locomotion if you count the production of the slime as part of the energy required.
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This one weird trick!
Rulers of the ancient Mediterranean loved Tyrian purple. But the colorful dye was exceedingly hard to get, as it was derived from Murex sea snails, which excrete the bromine compound to protect their eggs and ward off an attack.
For a single ounce of color, manufacturers had to milk or crush 250,000 gastropods. Once they’d collected the snail’s secretions, they placed the dye in a vat of urine and fermented it for 10 days, according to Kassia St. Clair’s book The Secret Lives of Color. Once they applied it to fabric, its brilliance reportedly never faded.
But the elaborate process was eventually Tyrian purple’s downfall. By the time Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Byzantine emperors could no longer afford to source the dye, according to St. Clair. The recipe was lost until 1856, when a French marine biologist rediscovered the snail species and their signature hue.
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Slug sex is shockingly acrobatic. If that tease weren’t enough to seduce you, David Attenborough’s smooth narration will guide you through the process.
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Million-dollar question: Why are snails so hot right now?
Snail mucin—the fancy word for slime—is the latest trend in beauty. Today’s market for facial slime—which has driven a 325% increase in snail farming in Italy alone over the last two decades—is a result of the Korean beauty industry’s dominance. K-beauty prizes mucin for its hydrating potential. It contains glycoproteins, hyaluronic acid, and glycolic acid. It’s also marketed as an anti-aging product, though the science is still out on whether it actually works. Extraction sounds icky, but at least it’s not deadly for the snails. “[H]arvesting the slime involves having the nocturnal snails crawl around a mesh net in a darkened room for 30 minutes at a time, then transferred back to their natural habitat to rest,” according The Strategist. Depending on your preference, you can buy sheet masks or creams, visit a spa where they put snails directly on your face, or have a doctor inject it into your pores through microneedling.
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Scientists think some snail species are disappearing fast—casualties of the sixth mass extinction. But it’s hard to tell because researchers aren’t tracking population changes in many invertebrates including snails. But in this story for The Atlantic, Ed Yong reports on the death of a 14-year-old Hawaiian snail, or kāhuli, named George, who was the last of his kind. “[I]n rare cases like George’s, when people are caring for an animal’s last known representative, extinction—an often abstract concept—becomes painfully concrete,” Yong writes. “It happens on their watch, in real time. It leaves behind a body.”