Snail Mail

Posted November 19th, 2011 by John Callender

I’ve written previously about the decollate snails (Rumina decollata) that live in the marsh. These non-native predatory snails are sometimes used as a biological control for the brown garden snail (Cornu aspersum). My daughter Julia took this photo of one climbing in blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) at the marsh a few years ago:

In early September I received an email from Shoichi Sano, a graduate student working with Prof. Akihiko Matsukuma of Kyushu University Museum. Shoichi had seen Julia’s photo on Flickr, and wanted to know if I might be able to send them a snail specimen. By examining the DNA of R. decollata from different parts of the world, they hope to learn more about how the snails are spreading.

After receiving the email I kept my eyes open at the marsh, but for a while all I could find were old, dried shells. Then in late September there was a light rain one night, and the next morning I found a group of a half-dozen decollate snails crawling near the path that parallels Ash Avenue. Here’s the one I collected:

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for snails; they seem like such peaceful, inoffensive creatures (at least if you’re not their prey, or if your garden isn’t being consumed by them). Deb Talan has a song about snails, “Angels Marching”, on her Sincerely album, and the lyrics have always resonated with me.

So I felt bad about killing this snail. But I’d told Shoichi I would, and after researching how to properly preserve and mail it, I dropped the snail into an airtight aluminum pill fob filled with alcohol, wrapped that in enough paper towels to absorb any leaks, and put the whole thing in a padded envelope.

I felt a little anxious waiting in line at the post office. Would my packing job be deemed adequate? I had to fill out a customs form, which required a detailed description of what I was sending. I wrote, “Preserved snail specimen (Rumina decollata)” and handed it in. The postal clerk didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Moments later my “snail mail” was stamped and on its way.

After a few weeks I received an email from Prof. Matsukuma:

Dear Dr. Callender,

I received an animal of Rumina decollata from the Carpinteria Salt Marsh, California preserved in ethanol. Thank you very much for your kind help to obtain the animal from California.

In Japan the invasive land snail R. decollata was found first at Kitakyushu City, Fukuoka Prefecture, northern Kyushu in 1988. At present the snail dispersed in various regions of western Japan, including northern Kyushu, Shikoku, Kinki and Kanto districts. I am afraid the snail will be a serious pest for vegetables in our country near future. I believe studies of origins and migration of the snail are important.

Once again, thank you very much for your kindness.

Best regards,

Akihiko Matsukuma
Kyushu University Museum

It was flattering, if inaccurate, for him to address me as Dr. Callender; I’m not a PhD, or any kind of scientist (unless you count political science, my major in college, as a “science”, which I don’t). But it was fun to feel included, and to participate, in a small way, in doing some “citizen science.”

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