The Secret World of Slugs & Snails

January 11, 2014
David George Gordon

Right. I read a pop science book about gastropods.

First of all, I'm not a gastropod expert - I'm not even really a gastropod enthusiast; most of my dealings with snails has been related to using them for lizard food (blue-tongue skinks tend to love snails). However, I'm also an avid collector of nominally useless knowledge, so I wandered into this book knowing only what most semi-interested laypeople know about them: They're hermaphroditic, their shells (for those species that have them) are made of calcium carbonate, and they're mollusks (and thus, counterintuitively, more closely related to octopuses than to worms).

Yeah … I collect not-necessarily-useful tidbits of knowledge. I run a little series on Facebook, Dagens nytteløse fact (Danish: Useless fact of the day) in which I share from my collection. In part because of that, and in part because I just plain like learning as much as I can about the fascinating universe which I happen to inhabit, my precioussss bought me a book about snails and slugs for my 34th birthday.

Now I know a lot more about snails and slugs, including a variety of fascinating and disturbing facts (the bizarre and gruesome mating habits of banana slugs; the fact that a jumping slug exists, the fact that common garden snails have long-term memories of at least four months, that some of them lay hard-shelled eggs, that people used to think a solution of ground-up snails could cure tuberculosis, or that banana slugs have sometimes eaten over 75% of the annual strawberry crop of the state of Washington). Not being a gastropod expert, I'm not qualified to judge this book on its malacological virtues alone, but it is very entertaining light reading for people who do know at least some basic biology.

It's written with humour and wit, and combines biological knowledge about gastropods with a collection of strange historical anecdotes, literary references and beliefs about snails. There are escargot recipes (not exactly appreciated by me, given that I am vegetarian). There are obscure facts about marine snails. There are guidelines for keeping pet gastropods. There are even environmentally friendly suggestions for garden owners to deal with gastropod pests, ranging from how to make effective beer traps to how to make a welcoming habitat for toads, lizards and garter snakes (all of which prey on gastropods without harming humans or garden flora).

On a more superficial note: The typography in this book is fantastic. It's set in a beautiful Venetian Antiqua style-font (looks like Jenson) on heavy, excellent-quality paper, with excellent pencil-drawn illustrations similar to what you might find in old-school science textbooks.

It's a great read, if you want to know more about some of the weird creatures that inhabit the lower echelons of the land food chain.

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