« From Switzerland: Itty-Bitty Plants for Your Keychain | Main | Mini-Plant Arrives at Fourmilab »

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Animal Magnetism: Mollusc Mountaineer

The cotoneaster hedge which surrounds Fourmilab is home to a large number of medium-sized snails which come out and slime their way across the driveway whenever it rains in the summer. Usually, they return to the shade and shelter of the hedge when the sun comes out and the pavement dries, but if they're “caught out” with insufficient slime to make it back (and heaven knows how they navigate, anyway), they'll “cement” themselves to whatever surface they happen to be upon. This does two things: first of all, it creates a vapour barrier which prevents further loss of their internal moisture which, in the 30+°C temperatures and direct sunlight common here in the summer, would otherwise rapidly dessicate them. Second, it protects them from the abundant ants (this is Fourmilab, after all!) which patrol this area. If a snail is accidentally dislodged from its cemented position and not returned to shelter, ants will quickly attack and devour the vulnerable soft-bodied mollusc within the shell—not a pretty thing to contemplate, but that's “nature, red in tooth and claw” (or, at least the equivalent arthropod body parts) for you.

I don't know how snails navigate, but whatever the mechanism, it doesn't always work very well, because every now and then you'll find a snail which has climbed vertically, high up the wall of a building and glued itself on when Fourmilab, with "mollusc mountaineer" under the East eave the rain stopped. Usually, they go away after a day or two—I don't know what becomes of them: whether they come back down when rain or fog permits them to move again, or they eventually drop off, back into the hedge. (Given how small and light they are, and the relative strength of the shell due to the cube-square law, I doubt such a fall would damage them.) On Friday, July 7th, 2006, I observed the most extreme example of mollusc mountaineering I've seen to date. After two days of off-and-on rain with the occasional thunderstorm, a snail had managed to climb the west wall of Fourmilab, a distance of about four metres if the path was straight up, which is not the way to bet, turn the corner onto the eave outside the computer lab window, and then glue itself to the painted wood surface there. In the picture, I've indicated the location of the snail with the red arrow; if you click the picture to display an enlargement, you can just make out the snail as a dark spot near the arrowhead. "Mollusc mountaineer" under the East eave of Fourmilab A zoom in on this location shows the snail, along with a few insects caught in a spider-web (the light emanating from the windows of the computer lab as Fourmilab programming projects stretch late into the night makes it prime hunting grounds for the local arachnid population), on the horizontal eave, with the vertical wall below. Clicking the picture will show you a view at the same scale, with more surrounding context.

I don't know what will become of this mollusc mountaineer; it is far enough from the ground and distant from the window that I'd find it difficult to intervene even if it weren't my inclination to let nature take its course in such things: think of it as evolution in action. I will, to be sure, add this episode to the Animal Magnetism collection eventually. (Update: By the time I got around to posting this, about 24 hours after I took the pictures above, the snail—I think it's the same one, anyway—had moved from the position where I first spotted it all the way over to the wall just below the eave next to the “chimney”, which is actually an exhaust stack for diesel generators, but that's a different story for another time.)

Posted at July 8, 2006 15:59