Herper.com Blog
Photo: Stock
Snail Raising in my Snailery: Collecting, Hatching, and Raising Terrestrial Mollusks in California

Williard M. Wood

Overland Monthly & Out West Magazine, May 1898

I was fourteen years ago last March that I first saw a "snail-shell." I do not refer to that long, slender, viscous animal of greenish-yellow color, so often seen in the early hours of the morning, silently wending its way over damp sidewalks or hanging on with great tenacity to the outer sides of concrete garden walls. This creature is called a "slug," and is wholly devoid of a visible shell.

This article deals not with the lowly beings of this genus, but pertains to the graceful little mollusks having daintily constructed spiral-shaped shells of beautiful colors attached to their tiny bodies.

I was roaming over the fresh grassy Presidio hills in San Francisco, on one of my early Sunday morning jaunts, and had sat down by a cluster of large blue and yellow pine bushes to rest and enjoy the beautiful panoramic marine view that spread itself before me.

While poking my stick through the dead and fallen leaves at my feet, I espied a small whitish shell of peculiar shape, half buried in the soft earth. Picking up and carefully examining the specimen, I found it to be a dead and bleached chalk-white one. At first, I naturally mistook it for a sea-shell from the Bay of San Francisco, and wondered how it came to be so far away from the beach, and at such an elevation. Taking it to the California Academy of Natural Sciences — at that time located in their old building on the corner of Dupont and California streets — for identification, I soon learned, greatly to my surprise, that it was not a shell of the sea, but a snail-shell of the genus Helix, and the most common variety inhabiting the peninsula of San Francisco.

My curiosity was aroused, and I was now determined to seek, and if possible find, the odd little living creature in its quaint home of quietness and peace.

I purchased (at the government price, the cost of publishing) from the Conchological Section of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, a book on "American-Land Shells," and carefully read the contents. I thus became fully informed regarding the habits of these little terrestrial air-breathing mollusks.

I ascertained the proper time and place to search for them, and then sallied forth one delightfully cool morning on a collecting trip, armed with a box of medium size in which to hold my "finds," and a small package of luncheon, for I was to be out on an all-day hunting expedition.

My first point of destination was Wildcat cañon, that portion of government land, within the boundary line of the Presidio, and lying immediately west of the United States Marine hospital, in front of Mountain lake. It was in this picturesque spot sheltered from the strong winds of the Pacific by steep banks on either side of the little zigzag, rippling stream of clear fresh water as it flows through the uninhabited ravine, that I collected the majority of the species found in the morning.

Two varieties of Helices dwell in the gulch. One, scientifically called Mesodon armigera, may be found quite readily by turning over the leaves of the water-cress plant which grows just upon the edge of the banks. The shell is a small one, not over half an inch in diameter. Its spire is quite acute, and the epidermis, or covering, is set with short, stiff microscopic hairs, making the shell feel quite rough when handled. Its color is light brown. In some specimens a small white tooth resembling delicate porcelain, may be found on the inner wall of the aperture. The species attains its greatest perfection in the State of Washington. The Territory of Alaska also furnishes splendid examples of this variety. At least one hundred and fifty specimens were taken from the cañon upon my first visit.

The other snail shell found there does not occur in great numbers. It requires considerable digging over much ground before a specimen is discovered. They generally bury themselves in loose, damp, rich soil, an inch or two below the surface and they seem to like being near the roots of small plants and shrubs. The name of this shell is Selenites Vancouverensis. It is a native of the Puget Sound country and the largest specimens may be found in that territory. The shell in shape resembles a large button; that is, it has a flattened spire and the umbilicus, or central opening, is large. It has five whorls, and is covered with a smooth yellowish green outer skin. The interior of the shell is white. In diameter most of the specimens average one inch, with height half as much. The shells are of the ordinary dextral form, although rarely an individual is found that is of sinistral form.

The species possess cannibal tendencies, and will destroy any and all specimens of other species which happen to be so unfortunate as to stray across their path. The bite is like the prick of a sharp pin, but will not draw blood from the finger. A dozen of these peculiarly shaped creatures were brought to light and placed in the box for future use.

My next move after the noon hour, was in the direction of Sutro's park (not Sutro heights), that beautiful heavily wooded hill which rises so gracefully, and forms such a superb background to the new Affiliated College buildings.

A tramp of an hour and a half over sand dunes and rocky places, brought me to the desired spot. There I gathered quantities of the most common species found in the Vicinity of San Francisco, Helix reticulata. It is undoubtedly the handsomest of all the snail-shells in California. The color is yellowish brown, and encircling the center of the delicately constructed shell is a narrow band of dark chestnut brown. The umbilicus is distinct but not large. The diameter of the entire shell averages an inch. The surface is reticulated, — hence its name, — and in some specimens the fine net work is very beautiful, resembling beautiful needlework. The animals living within these little shells are all of a bluish slate color with the exception of Mesodon armigera. That species is of a dull reddish brown. I also obtained a number of other shells of this genus but of much smaller dimensions. Triodopsis loricata is the name of a fuscous shell only a quarter of an inch in diameter. It has a rough surface, an open umbilicus, and a white tooth on its shell axis. It may often be found snugly adhering to the under portions of rocks and small stones. It is of a very retiring disposition and if disturbed, will immediately withdraw its tiny body into the shell. How entirely different this variety is from the soldier-like Vancouverensis, which fears nothing and is always prepared to do battle with everything in its path.

For the monarchical shell the noblest of all the San Francisco species, I again traveled the same day in search of it, but in a southwesterly direction, toward the county line. I halted upon the high bluffs, a few hundred yards from the ocean beach, and began delving into queer little nooks and out-of-the-way corners and under large green leaves of various plants. In such places I found numbers of these large shells feeding upon tender vegetation and seemingly enjoying the salubrious ocean breeze as it floated over and through their quaint rendezvous. These were packed away in my box and brought home.

The size of the shell of this species varies considerably. Some mature specimens, stunted in growth, are less than an inch in diameter, while other shells are over an inch and a half.

In construction the shell has seven spiral turns, and is dark brown in color with a broad band of still darker brown. The rim of the aperture is thick and white, while the interior possesses a purplish tint.

With a few of the mentioned varieties of shells collected as above, I was enabled to start my "snailery." These, I think, made quite a satisfactory showing.

As far as I have been able to ascertain by correspondence with the two hundred odd members of the American Association of Conchologists (of which I am a member), I find that I have the "oldest established" snailery in America.

It may be well to mention that the edible snails, so frequently exposed for sale on the counters of our leading grocery stores are not raised in this country. They are shipped alive from European towns.

Owing to the moderately warm and even temperature of a conservatory, — for the extremes of heat or cold will prove disastrous in snail raising, — I have found it necessary to keep my snailery in a favorable corner on the ground floor of my conservatory and resting there it is handled by no one but myself. It consists of a large box of Oregon pine fixed securely so that the sides when moistened within cannot expand and ruin the shape of the box. It was originally filled with ordinary loose earth but now is periodically renewed with rich soil, as snail-shells thrive only in such soil.

Occasionally seed, such as is given for food to canary birds, is planted in a corner of the box and when half grown serves as a tempting appetizer to the dainty inmates. The rolling surface is interspersed with small rough stones, small broken twigs, and other miscellaneous odd bits. The captives evidently delight in crawling over and under these, and at times some may be found clinging to them.

To prevent the little creatures from crawling up the sides of the box, making their escape, and traveling at will over the plants in the conservatory, it was necessary to find something to place over the top.

A glass covering would cause heat and suffocation, while a board would exclude light and air. A very desirable top-piece in the shape of a large tightly-woven wire window screen was found, and suited the purpose admirably. This admitted an easy inspection of the interior without its removal.

Visits are made to the snailery regularly twice a day. My first inspection is made at eight o'clock in the morning and the last at five-thirty o'clock in the afternoon. At the morning visit, I take out all scraps of vegetable matter left uneaten by the little dwellers, so that it will not decay and cause their death. It must be understood that the odor of decomposing matter kills them very quickly. I then replenish the supply, giving clean and tender bits of lettuce or cauliflower leaves,— the latter they eat voraciously and seem to prefer it to other food, — and after seeing that no dead or dying animals remain within the enclosure, I sprinkle the earth slightly with water to dampen the surface and keep it in this condition until my next morning's visit.

On looking into the box, there will be observed at least one hundred snails, each carrying upon its back a little, non-detachable, graceful-looking spiral home. The majority are firmly attached to the sides of the box near the top, and remove themselves from these positions only when darkness comes.

They feed principally during the night and are seldom seen nibbling at the dainty morsels when there is light overhead.

Upon one occasion I remember losing my entire collection. I had put out in the large back yard, for a little airing, the box containing them and had left the house to go down town on an errand, forgetting, of course, that they were placed high upon a narrow stool and in a hazardous position. Returning, I found that the yard dog had been chasing a cat, and for safety she had jumped upon the top of the snailery. In trying to reach her, the dog jumped against the stool, knocking it over and breaking loose the cover. In this manner my pets had made their escape, crawling among the flowers and over the fence. Few were recovered, much to my regret. Several extremely rare species were lost, including two valuable bandless varieties of reticulata.

At another time I accidentally forgot to cover the enclosure after I had watered the earth, and in the afternoon I found the animals crawling all over the conservatory. Most of them were recovered. Some weeks after, however, I found one specimen adhering to the bottom of a kitchen chair and another was found by a member of the family crawling up the head portion of the bedstead in her boudoir, just as she was retiring.

Upon counting the number of species in my present snailery, I find there are twenty-one. Of this number, fifteen were sent to me in a living state from Germany, France, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, and Lower California, while the remainder are natives of the States New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Louisiana, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oregon, Washington, and California. Those from Colorado were collected in 1893 while I was on the road to the World's Fair. The train stopped in front of a wrecked bridge and the passengers alighted to take a stroll in the vicinity of the small river. I joined the throng, and when we came to a spot some fifty yards back of the last car, I observed the ground literally covered with a light-colored and pretty banded species. They were crossing the railroad track and all going in a southerly direction. Some were quite young shells, while others were mature and had the thick outer lip completed. Hundreds were gathered — the largest and best were selected — and put away in several cigar boxes until I reached Chicago. I then removed the animals from the shells by the application of moderately warm fresh water, and kept but a few living examples for my snailery.

One beautiful Mexican edible snail, — Helix Buffoniana, — which I purchased from a native of that country when he was visiting San Francisco, has produced since it was placed in the inclosure over sixty young by actual count. The majority of them have grown rapidly and seem to be in a healthy condition. Some of the shells, at the present writing, have attained the size of the mother shell, and still they are not as yet mature specimens.

Of all the shells of the species Helix reticulata which I have hatched in my snailery, I have been unable up to date to produce a single specimen of the rare variety without a narrow revolving band of dark chestnut-brown color, nor of the beautiful pale lemon-colored albino form. These rarities seem to occur about once in every five hundred specimens. During the number of years in which I have been collecting and raising these tiny mollusks, I have found on the hills but a half dozen of each kind of these rare forms. Few prominent American conchologists have these valuable varieties in their collections, and there is always a great demand for them. I have now on file a number of requests from scientists in America and Europe for good examples of these rarities. My private collection contains but one set of each kind. During my snail-raising experience I have found that some species begin to reproduce their kind at the termination of their first year's existence. That is, of course, before they have reached a state of maturity.

All snail-shells will thrive well if they are in sheltered spots, such as under trunks of fallen trees, stones, or layers of decaying leaves, and in such places they spend the greater portion of their lives. In the early spring they often assemble in great numbers in cosy locations, sluggishly basking in the warmth of the delightful sunshine, never, however, with the direct rays falling upon them.

Between the months of March and October they begin to lay their eggs, — some species are viviparous, — and these are deposited in moist, rich soil, out of the reach of the penetrating rays of the sun. As great a number as seventy-five have been laid by one animal, and they are all somewhat agglutinated together by a slimy substance. The eggs are of a whitish hue, opaque, and look remarkably like a number of homeopathic pills. The range in size is considerable, and depends upon the various species producing them.

I have often seen the little creatures burrow holes in the earth to deposit eggs. The depth is generally about the length of the body. Almost the entire body is thrust into the hole, but not its shell. That remains upon the surface, with the end of the body still within it, while the deposit is carried on. The snail will usually make several such deposits during the spring, summer, and autumn months. The hole, when filled up, is covered over with earth and then abandoned.

If an egg is taken a few days after it has been buried, the embryo snail may be observed within. The young creature breaks the soft shell of the egg in about thirty days. Of course, the state of the atmosphere must be taken into consideration. Warmth hastens the growth considerably, while cold prevents them from maturing, and in some cases the eggs have been known to remain unhatched for some months, owing to cold weather.

After the young one makes its appearance, its first meal consists of its own eggshell. The growth of the tiny creature is rapid, and before the expiration of the year it has doubled in size several times.

At the first approach of cold, the snail stops feeding and suspends all functions, withdrawing its body into its home, after having retired to a secluded spot, where it will hermetically seal up its opening and hibernate until the next spring.

Our snail's natural food is vegetation. The mouth and organs apparently are well suited for cutting the tender leaves of plants, which they devour with great rapidity. Some species do not confine themselves to eating vegetable food, but are vermivorous besides feeding upon dead insects, and even weaker species of their own kind, although they do not depend entirely upon animal matter. Those creatures possessing cannibal tendencies are often in turn devoured by the big saucy blue jays which are always on the lookout for such dainty morsels. Numbers of these birds I have often seen searching on the ground for snails. Those they crack by flying up in the air and letting them drop from their claws to the hard ground.

The colors of all North American snail-shells are exceedingly plain. They differ entirely from the European species, which have many brilliant colors. Our shells are mostly horn-colored and not banded. California contains the majority of shells with narrow brown bands encircling the center.

Our shells shun civilization, and disappear with wonderful rapidity at the approach of man. In this respect they differ from their European neighbors, which delight in infesting flower gardens and are generally a nuisance. Some snails seem to be possessed of a migratory disposition. Helix arrosa will travel a great distance. I have at one time collected them in a certain locality and some weeks after I visited the same spot but could not find a single specimen. Perhaps if I wander some hundred yards away I come across the band. On the other hand, species like Helix loricata appear content to remain in a certain place, and no matter when I go there, I am always certain of finding some specimens.

Snails can, at will, as a means of defense, throw out and over their bodies a secretion of mucous fluid of such thickness that it is almost impermeable. A quantity of this substance is always emitted when they come in contact with foreign irritating matter. Should they be thrown into hot water or alcohol, an unusual amount of this mucus comes out of the body and will protect the animal from death, that is, for a short time. A thin coating of their ordinary secretion is left upon everything over which they crawl. This quickly hardens and has a silvery appearance.

It is not difficult for one to be successful in hunting for these pretty snail-shells. First find the trail, and if traced the shell will surely be found in some secluded spot. A collection of the rarer forms of snail-shells is valuable and certainly worth having.

Collecting at night may be carried on quite successfully if one goes about it in the right manner. The animals are more active between the hours of sundown and sunrise than during the daytime. The time, however, to obtain the best results is about nine o'clock in the evening.

Some years ago I started out, with a friend, toward the terminal of the Sutter Street cable car system on Pacific avenue where the residences are few and far between. We selected several high garden walls where the grass grew abundantly, and while one held a small "burglar's" flash-light lantern, the other collected the living animals as they were crawling around in all directions. About fifty mature specimens were gathered in a short time. While resting the light of our lantern into various nooks and corners, we were cautiously but quickly approached by a private detective on duty and ordered to explain our actions satisfactorily or take the consequences. This we did, and evaded an arrest that seemed certain. Such encounters, however, the snail hunter and raiser must at all times be prepared to meet.