Waiting to Wake Up

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In traditional preservation of snail shells, the shell is boiled to remove any remaining tissues before mounting (often done by gluing the shell to a card). But what happens if the shell was not boiled and there is a living snail within? Desert snails can survive long periods of drought by retreating far into their shells. Deep in their own whorls they sleep until moisture awakens them again…

A snail shell in the Upper Las Vegas Wash - Photo by the BLM
A snail shell in the Upper Las Vegas Wash – Photo by the BLM

Photo of a desert snail (Eremina desertorum) by Oz Rittner
Photos of a desert snail (Eremina desertorum) by Oz Rittner

Egypt, 1846: a desert snail was brought to the British Museum in London (now the Natural History Museum). Authorities of the museum, tasked with mounting and labelling, were unaware that the creature was still alive. So, doing their duty, he was gummed onto a piece of cardboard sealing him inside his shell. They wrote onto the card:

Helix desertorum, March 25, 1846

And there he sat for four years. It was on March 7, 1850, that someone discovered discoloration on the mounting card. Discoloration, specifically, around the mouth to the shell. Immediate belief was that something was living in the shell! To release the creature from its bondage, they soaked it in a warm bath and he soon emerged alive!

Within minutes he began moving about the container and was fed cabbage. Soon after, he was placed in a glass jar to be tended to. A report of his resuscitation was written in Woodward’A Manual of the Mollusca:

…it was observed that he must have come out of his shell in the interval (as the paper had been discoloured, apparently in his attempt to get away); but finding escape impossible, had again retired, closing his aperture with the usual glistening film; this led to his immersion in tepid water, and marvellous recovery. He is now (March 13th, 1850) alive and flourishing, and has sat for his portrait.

And that portrait can also be seen in those pages, posted below for your enjoyment.

illustration

The snail lived another year before curling up for another nap. This was a voluntary decision, not one made by glue and card, that lasted eight months until November 9th, 1951. At this point he only stayed awake and about until the 15th. He curled back up and never returned. After confirming he was dead, in March of 1952 the snail was returned to the card from which he awoke. He remains a part of the Natural History Museum collection to this day.

Photo by Jon Ablett © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
Photo by Jon Ablett © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Music: Symphony no. 73 in D major “The Hunt” by Franz Joseph Haydn

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