Extolling the Virtues of a Snail

Today is National Escargot Day!

Of course, there are other days devoted to snail recognition. November 7th, for example, is International Land Snail Day according to the California Fish and Wildlife Department. However, I’ve selected May 24th to write about my love affair with snails for two reasons.

I met my very first snail swimming in garlic butter. I was 17 at the time, on a date at a fancy restaurant. I had a keen interest in all things French, so of course I overcame my reticence to try the bubbling mollusks. When six morsels arrived in a serving dish specifically made for escargot, I braced myself for…yum!

Until I moved to California, I don’t think I ever encountered a live snail, but when I earned my certification as a UC Master Gardener of Napa County in 2010, I learned that snails are far from revered in the backyard garden. Nonetheless, I will gladly tolerate a few snails in a school garden primarily because of their tremendous teaching potential.

The typical “garden variety” snails were brought to North America by European immigrants in the mid 1800s as a readily available protein source, however, some historians think the Romans introduced snails to French cuisine! According to this source, the global snail market is predicted to reach 50 thousand tons by 2025. That’s a lot of snails! I have about 100 snails living in my home right now, which brings me to the less nostalgic reason for writing on this topic today.

I dedicate this post to the elementary teachers who recently graduated from their credential program where I had the honor of teaching them how to keep science REAL (Relevant, Engaging, Authentic, & Loving – props to Principal Walton for the acronym). When I was struggling to provide experiential lessons during distance learning in the fall of 2020, seven slimy snail friends came to the rescue. Read on to find out how an impromptu lesson on snails broke the virtual ice in a science methods course taught via Zoom.

I had been using snails as part of my garden-forward science coaching for years with varying degrees of success. Some teachers were wild for the high engagement prompted by keeping snail terraria in the classroom, not at all bothered by students’ “distraction” with their specimen. Other teachers were squeamish when I took them to the garden to find snails for a third grade science lessons about inheritance and traits. (Pro Tip: In case you were unaware, snails are hermaphroditic, so they are a great organism to introduce reproduction to eight year olds without getting into too much detail about sexy parts.)

If the snail is not already your favorite animal, I’d like you introduce you to Escargot, the main character of the eponymous book by Dashka Slater. The plot is simple, a very clearly French land snail charms the reader into being open minded about snails. If you think snails are too slimy, shy, or slow to be fun, Escargot says, “Au Contraire!”

With kids, snails are a guaranteed win! Whether trying to get first graders to write during a summer school program or enticing kids to do complicated math, snails are a phenomenal tool for teaching science.

Snails are easy to observe and have curious behaviors that invite authentic questions.

How do snails see? Why do they make slime trails? When do they eat? These are just a few of the questions kids might wonder about snails. Snails are mollusks, closely related to other gastropods like slugs, and distantly related to cephalopods such as squid and octopuses. They are born with a shell (kids often wonder) and are not just slugs that lost (or haven’t yet grown) their shell. They have unique behavioral adaptations, such as retracting into their shells (like a turtle) and using their top set of tentacles (not antennae) to smell and explore. Perhaps the most intriguing thing I’ve seen snails do time and time again is make a snail pile or tower. Why do they do this?

Snails have noticeable variation and a relatively fast life cycle.

Every snail has a distinct pattern on the spiral-shaped shell. This makes them an ideal organism for an extended study of growth, development, reproduction and death (NGSS LS1-1, 3-1, 3-2 and 4-2). Unfortunately, snails don’t capture the attention of curiosity-driven scientific researchers, but I have a hunch there’s a lot more to learn about snails. I have even endeavored to plan a unit that invites kids to observe snail offspring in captivity to identify inherited traits.

How long will I keep 100 baby snails living in captivity, you might wonder? They are the offspring of the seven silly snails that inspired me to keep science REAL. It seems metaphorically fitting to set them free on the heels of twenty new educators entering the field.

With appreciation and love for the BE3 Class of 2021.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, author of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, documented a rare firsthand account of snail copulation. If I wasn’t quite aware of how much I loved snails before reading her book, I was certainly convinced afterwards. A poignant true story, this riveting tale invites the reader to slow down and consider life’s greatest mysteries.

Check out the book trailer for The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (2010), which is described in the following way: “While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches as the snail takes up residence on her nightstand. Intrigued by its molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making ability, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer.” (http://www.elisabethtovabailey.net/)

More Snail Tales from The School Garden Doctor:

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