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Speaking of Nature

Kids & Critters: The amber snail

Now that school has started up again, we can all start reminiscing about the good old days of summer. Places we went, people we saw and things we did are all fodder for the memory machine, but one of the most powerful memories I’ll have is that of the weather. The summer started off hot and humid, then got nice for a while, then ended with cool and humid. Last weekend was definitely a soggy one.

Another thing you might remember was a movie about a snail that learned to go fast. This was funny because, as we all know, snails simply can’t go fast. No, in the world of snails, the order of every day is slow and steady. You might have also found the movie a little strange because the snails were driving around on land. Everyone knows that there are snails that live in the water, but do snails ever crawl over the ground?

Well, the surprising answer is “yes.” There are, in fact, snails that can be found on land and the wet, humid weather of this summer really put a spotlight on the most common type of land snail in our area: the amber snail.

As in the movie, the amber snail is extremely small. Measuring about half an inch in length, the shell of an amber snail is not impossible to spot, but you do have to spend a little time looking for one. You also have to look in the right sort of places to find amber snails, which prefer wet, humid conditions at all times.

In the beginning of the summer, you could find an amber snail just about anywhere. As conditions dried up in the middle of the summer, you had to narrow your search to places that stayed wet. Meadows with long grass and damp ground tend to be favorable for amber snails.

One of the reasons that snails need to be kept moist is because, like slugs, snails move about on a fleshy pad called a foot. This structure is a flat, muscular organ that allows snails to move forward by using a series of muscular contractions. To glide along and to keep a good suction with the surfaces they cling to, snails need to maintain a thin layer of mucous underneath their “feet.” Thus, damp and humid places are the ones that are best for snails.

The amber snail gets its name from the color of its shell. Thin enough to be translucent, the shell is extremely delicate. Snails of similar size that can be found clinging to rocks at low tide in ocean environments might have much thicker shells, but amber snails only live for about a year so they can’t spend too much time or energy growing a very thick shell.

One thing we know about amber snails is that they graze on plant tissue, fungus, algae and little single-celled creatures they may come across as they glide around. They have a mouth but are invertebrates, which means they don’t have any bones or teeth. Instead, they have a structure called a “radula.” The best way to imagine this structure is to think of a comb that is made out of a material called “chitin,” which is the same stuff beetle shells are made of. By rasping the radula back and forth, the snail can rake food into its mouth.

While summer vacation might be over, there are still a couple of weeks of summer ahead of us. It will still be warm and wet for a while yet, so don’t be afraid to get outside and look for some amber snails. As the time for moving wood approaches, amber snails can be found down near the bottom of any woodpile. This can make an otherwise tedious chore a little more fun.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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