Snails may be a bane to gardeners, but they occupy an important place in every ecosystem.
When I saw the ad for a discounted Celebrity cruise to Cabo San Lucas at the end of the Baja Peninsula, I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to escape winter weather and not break the bank. It took less than a nanosecond to convince my wife that this might be a good idea, and about 10 days later, we disembarked from the Port of Los Angeles.
Cruises are known for their food and this one was no exception. At a formal dinner each night, we were presented with menu choices from around the world. There was also standard fare, available every night, just in case the more adventurous cuisine was not appealing. One of the standard appetizers was escargot. Now, I knew what escargot was—snails—and determined to try some. Fantastic. Each little morsel came swimming in seasoned butter and I ordered this appetizer on at least four occasions. I could not, however, convince my wife to try them.
Snails have been on the human menu for at least 10,000 years and have been cultivated since Roman times (raising snails for food is known as heliciculture and they are considered very easy to raise). At least 16 snail species are consumed, but most are land snails, often referred to as terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusks—terrestrial because they live on land, pulmonate because they have a lung instead of gills, gastropod because they belong to the class Gastropoda, and mollusk, because like clams, starfish and a host of other species, they are members of the phylum, Mollusca.
Snails are fascinating creatures. Between the freshwater, marine and land species and with their fellow gastropods, the slugs, there may be 80,000 species, second only to insects for overall numbers of species. With this many species, the variety in habitats (from deserts to the deepest ocean), behaviors, feeding and form is staggering and defies a lot of generalization about gastropods.
Snails were once referred to as unipods because they have a single shell piece as opposed to bipods such as clams which have two. A shell is one of the few unifying aspects of snails—they all have one in some form or another. Their spiral shells are often beautifully designed and colored and commonly used as decorations.
Even though most snails that make it to the culinary table are land snails, marine snails far outnumber them in species, biomass, and diversity. For instance, the largest land snails are known as African Giants. They may be 15 inches long when fully stretched out and weigh two pounds. The largest marine snail, Syrinx aruanus, has a shell that can be nearly a meter long and the whole animal can weigh 40 pounds. While researchers continue to discover smaller and smaller species, the land record is just over half a millimeter at its widest point. The tiniest marine snail is under half a millimeter.
The majority of land snails feed on some sort of vegetation, although there are a few predatory land snails, including one that targets other snails. Conversely, many marine species are omnivores or predatory carnivores. Feeding is usually similar, with most snails using a ribbon-like tongue called a radula. This tongue is covered with thousands of microscopic “teeth”. They use their tongue like a rasp to scrape and shred food from plants or to scrape algae or bacteria off surfaces or other sources.
Snails can be pesky creatures in some circumstances. Gardeners and farmers hate seeing the slimy trails snails leave behind as well as the damage they can inflict on crops. There are many methods for keeping snails at bay including copper bands around tree trunks, or a liberal dosing of diatomaceous earth or table salt around the area to be protected. Of course, too much salt can lead to its own long-lasting problems, but that is a story for another time.
Because snails are so abundant, it makes sense that there are predators that specialize in eating snails. Two rather famous ones are the snail kite, a medium-sized raptor and a large wading bird called a limpkin. Both feed almost exclusively on the freshwater apple snail.
Snails may be slimy when alive, but properly prepared there is no slime. Escargot is a nutritious food low in fat (until it is soaked in butter), high in protein, iron, niacin and magnesium and is a good source of selenium. Maybe we can start a new campaign to take on the beef industry: Escargot, it beats beef for dinner.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho