I've had more slugs in my garden this year than ever. So when I found a slug hanging out atop a dandelion after a rain, I asked Marla (a snail expert) whether it was nibbling the flowers or trying to keep its foot dry. One question led to another and finally I asked if she'd maybe just write a little bit about snails for this blog. I'm so happy she did.
Peer down into a patch of weeds, under a decaying log, or sift through some topsoil, and you might have the chance to meet the often-misunderstood underdogs of the animal kingdom: the land snails.
Why snails, and what exactly are these squishy, slimy creatures, you ask? As a malacologist specializing in land snails and an artist who likes to draw them, I’m happy to tell you.
I first discovered snails as a young child. I remember turning over the stones in my backyard, where I discovered the universe of tiny snails that lived beneath them. I was intrigued that they led a seemingly mysterious life and had a beautifully coiled shell. I had to learn more, and so began my lifelong quest.
Slugs are snails too, except that they evolved to not need a shell, or some have a drastically reduced bit of shell under the skin behind the head. So when I refer to snails, I really mean snails and slugs.
|by Marla Coppolino
In their hidden lives, native snails do lots of unseen good for the ecosystem. First, they act as clean-up crews, making meals out of leftovers like old, rotted mushrooms, dead plants, and even dead animals. You’re more likely to find them if you do a careful search in their natural habitats, like meadows, undisturbed woodlands, and limestone outcrops, where they glean vital nutrients from these materials, like calcium and magnesium.
In turn, snails and slugs become food for many other animals of the food web. Firefly larvae feast upon them, salamanders snack on them, even some mammals – like chipmunks and squirrels – munch them. For many birds, snails are an essential source of nutrients important for laying viable eggs.
Some snails and slugs can be real garden pests, but you’re unlikely to find the native snails in your vegetable garden. Snails that have been introduced from other lands are the ones with large appetites, doing much damage to your Swiss chard, cucumbers, strawberries, and other veggies and fruits under the dark cover of night. As much as I like to help others learn about the benefits of native snails in the ecosystem, so many questions come my way about how to get rid of garden pest snails. I’m not the expert here, but I can share one trick: I pick the little buggers off my veggies by hand every morning and drop them off at least 100 feet from the garden. Labor intensive, yes, but there’s minimal damage to my garden.
Why do I like to look for, talk about, write about and draw snails so much? Maybe it’s because they need someone to be their megaphone. Spending time with snails reminds me to slow down in life, in a good way, to stop, ask questions, and stay curious. I hope these amazing animals can do the same for both my children and adult audiences.
Marla develops online courses at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, mostly to help people learn about birds, how to be stewards of nature, as well as fun things like drawing and painting birds. She enjoys researching and pulling together scientific information in a way that's broadly understandable and fun to learn. Marla also drew the illustrations for The Sound of the Sea, by Cynthia Barnett (W.W. Norton & Co. 2021). You can find out more about her art at her website, www.marlacoppolino.com