There isn’t always a complete answer, part one…

For those of you who have been hanging on the edge of your seat, checking thrice daily to see if I’ve offered an update, I apologize for keeping you in suspense. Actually, no I don’t – suspense is good for you, and anxiety strengthens the heart. Well known fact.

Anyway, I mentioned trying to follow-up on the attack snail, and I did; in my online searches I came across the name, repeatedly actually, of Kathryn E. Perez, Ph.D., who has published a fair amount about land snails. She had also done postdoctoral work at two of the nearby universities, Duke and UNC, so it seemed likely that she was directly familiar with the species in the area. I dropped her an e-mail and got a prompt response – yet, not a definitive answer. Here’s how that goes sometimes:

First, while I did several direct measurements of the snail while I had it (guided by a PDF on snail identification) and got lots of images of my subject, I didn’t pay attention to the umbilicus area. Snail shells form in a spiral, of course, but they may do a flat spiral, or they may ‘stack up’ a bit making a cone, which would leave an empty space on the ‘underside’ of the spiral. The umbilicus is the axis around which the spiral twirls, and I paid attention to the top side in detail, but simply never thought to take note of the underside, which would have narrowed down the species choices a bit. The other aspect that would have given more clues was the lip of the aperture, which is the opening of the shell itself. In this case, I got a few measurements and examined it closely, but the snail wasn’t cooperating, and simply refused to retract fully so the aperture was unobstructed. What I have is a tentative identification of Neohelix albolabris, with a possibility of it being either Mesodon thyroidus, Mesodon zaletus, or Allogona profunda. These are all members of the Polygyridae family, so at least I’d gotten that correct, even if I copied a typo when relating that for the initial post.

As for the burning sensation when I contacted it? Dr. Perez confirmed that many snails have such defenses, also including yucky-tasting mucus (I know that shocks most of us who imagine snails to be succulent and fruity,) but it appears not to be known if this species in particular sports such a defense. In fact, from the dearth of information I found about this on my own, this topic hasn’t been a matter of too much study. I don’t feel bad about not finding this, since the mention of the chemical composition of snail mucus that Dr. Perez forwarded me was buried in a scientific paper.

I mentioned this before in the Amateur Naturalist series of posts, but we’re still finding out a lot of details about species as we go – biology and taxonomy are not as well-explored as we might believe. Among the smaller and more prolific members of the animal kingdom, there are such large numbers and subtle divisions that biologists are still slogging through them all, so it’s possible to come up against questions where the answer either isn’t known, or is still kind of vague. Which means that if my finger turns mauve and drops off tomorrow, I may be the catalyst for a new avenue of research, possibly resulting in a toxic snail snot being named after me. So there’s that to look forward to.

Dr. Perez provided more info than expected, especially now as colleges approach final exams and the workload gets heinous, so I’ll take the opportunity to thank her once again, publicly. There is often a disconnect between the ‘scientific community’ and information readily available to the public, even in this age of electronic publication; working scientists often don’t have the time or funding to create general education works, and most papers are too specific and dry to attract a serious consumer market. I’ve had very good luck contacting universities with questions, but am always a little circumspect, since the people within these departments have their own work to do, often quite a bit. This is also coupled with the fact that many people specialize in a narrow field, and finding one that knows your topic may take some searching. So while I don’t want to encourage anyone to immediately contact their local universities with all questions, and will stress that numerous answers are available online with a bit of effort, sometimes this is still a worthwhile avenue of information.

I’ll use the idea of special efforts among working scientists to educate the general public as a springboard for the next post, which is unrelated enough that I decided not to pursue it in just one ;-)