Some people find these slimy creatures simply disgusting while others hate them for decimating their vegetable patch. They might not have the best standing in the eyes of most people, but when taking a closer look at them, snails display a variety of fascinating behaviors and mysteries. Where do they even come from, how do they reproduce? Do snails lay eggs?
Yes, they do! Most species of snails, like the common brown snail that is often found in gardens, lay eggs. Other species, like the freshwater snail, birth living offspring.
Something that is very interesting about the reproduction of snails is that they are hermaphrodites, which means that they have both male and female reproductive organs which are located inside their bodies. This means that any snail can mate with any other snail. Since they can produce both sperm and eggs, most species of snails can even get themselves pregnant! Most of them chose a partner for this activity, though.
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In some species, both snails can fertilize each other at the same time and thus get pregnant at the same time and during the same sex act. In these cases, both snails can lay fertilized eggs. With their abilities to self-fertilize as well as to fertilize and be fertilized at the same time, these little creatures are truly optimized for reproduction.
For these animals which are known for their overall slowness, mating, too, takes several hours. Sometimes, they copulate for up to twelve hours. Most of this time is spent tasting and smelling each other, the actual moment of fertilization comes late in the act.
During mating, some snails, especially those that have mated before, shoot so-called “love darts” into the flesh of their partner. These darts can be dangerous because they sometimes pierce the internal organs – for humans, the equivalent would be being stabbed with a 15-inch knife.
The purpose of these darts, which are technically called gypsobelums, is the transfer of a hormone that increases the chances of producing offspring. Even if both snails inject sperm into the other, the one that has been shot by the love dart is more likely to carry fertilized eggs afterward.
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Sometimes you can find an abandoned love dart in a slime puddle and you know: snail sex has happened here! If this is not a romantic fact to share on your next walk with a date, I do not know what is.
Snails can lay up to 100 fertilized eggs. They bury their eggs in small holes they have made in the soil. For doing this, they prefer moist and cool places, like for example under logs or leaves.
Depending on the species, snail eggs hatch in two to six weeks – but the parent snail does not, like a chicken, have to sit on the eggs for this to happen. The emerging baby snails are anatomically complete, which means that they already look and function like adult snails, just on a much smaller scale.
Their shell is still very soft, though, so the baby snails have to immediately consume calcium to build up its strength. Therefore, they often consume the remains of their own egg or other eggs that have not yet hatched. Newly hatched snails also do not have reproductive organs yet, though. It takes them about a year to reach complete and sexual maturity.
Snails prefer to mate in the warmer months, so they tend to copulate in the summer in colder climates, or in the autumn of warmer climates. Generally, snails are most active around sunset, so they mostly mate at this hour, too.
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As mentioned above, freshwater snails do not lay eggs. Instead, they carry the fertilized eggs in a special cavity inside of their shell, which is where the freshly hatched offspring spend their early days. Once they have consumed all the nutrients they need to be ready for the outside world, the baby snails crawl out.
Why Are Snails Slimy?
Their most distinctive feature is probably the trail of shiny slime that snails leave behind wherever they go. They secrete two types of mucus with two discrete functions: On the one hand, it keeps the body of land snails from drying out.
Snails cannot deal well with heat and dryness and mostly spend warm days safely inside their shell. Some of them can even close the hole in their shell with another secretion that hardens for extra protection.
On the other hand, their slime allows them to crawl safely across all kinds of differently textured surfaces. The coating of slime on the bottom of their bodies, which are called feet, is so thick that they can even crawl over the sharp edge of a razorblade without getting hurt. This mucus has glue-like qualities which makes it possible for snails to ascend vertical surfaces without falling off.
Humans have discovered that the slime that protects the soft body of a snail from cuts, bacteria, and UV rays, can do the same for human skin. The use of snail slime in medicine and cosmetics goes back to Ancient Greece, but the first patent for its effect in skin treatments is only from the 1990s.
Dr. Rafael Abad, who holds this patent, proposes that his serum which is made from the secretions of stressed-out, agitated snails, can be used to treat damage to the skin, like burn wounds, rashes, or eczema. He also suggests adding it to recipes for sunscreen, or anti-winkle creams.
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Since then, snail slime has been used in several cosmetic products. While it first came into public attention with its propensity for healing cuts and scars, it is now mostly advertised as giving the skin a smooth, youthful appearance. The opinions of dermatologists and chemists vary. It is difficult to make a clear statement of the healing or anti-aging properties of snail slime since it differs significantly depending on the species or habitat of any given snail.
It can be stated, though, that snail slime is generally not toxic, so there is no reason to worry if your pet or your toddler has, accidentally or out of curiosity, put a snail in their mouth.