With valentine's day approaching it's time for some romance, and nothing says romance like cupid's arrow… finding that one true love. One does not have to look far to see a case of cupid's arrow in real life though, in fact you really just have to look outside the back door. The brown garden snail or Helix Aspersa, that common little fellow you see munching his way across your veggie patch, has one of the most exciting and dangerous love lives in the garden!
Most land snails are hermaphroditic, as in they have both male and female body parts. Great when you are looking for a partner as everybody fits the bill! Snail sex starts well, and as you would expect from a snails pace there is a slow and slimy courtship, but it usually ends badly for one party:
For snail sex to be successful both parties must insert their penises into the other party at the same time, but then it gets even more interesting. Snails are the original cupid, having a small bony weapon hidden within that they use to stab their partner during mating. I’m not talking about a penis here… this is pure mucus coated weaponry. It seems virgin snails don't have one, they are pretty harmless, but your more experienced gastropod lovers come to the party armed. When mating commences, (see images above, the two penis thing is pretty amazing!) then the snails effectively tussle over who will be “male” and both will attempt to stab the other snail with a dart leaving it protruding for the rest of its (often shortened) life.
The dart carries a hormone in the mucus that seems to make the snail more recipient to the sperm of the other snail so increasing its paternal chances. Studies have shown however that it also has the effect of reducing both the quantity of eggs laid and the lifespan of the poor snail stuck playing lady that day.
So next time you find a snail in the garden just remember what it risks every time it tries to lay its eggs on your lettuces!
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