Tuesday 5 July 2011

Amber Snail Puzzle

ResearchBlogging.orgWhile removing an old pot containing a lot of grass and a dead Agapanthus, next to a rainwater filled pot, I stumbled upon this little snail. I was quite surprised as initially, I thought it was a pond snail, but closer inspection revealed the tell-tale eyes-on-top-of-tentacles characteristic of land snails and slugs, while aquatic snails have their eyes at the base of their tentacles. After sifting through a Molluscs guide I found out it was a Common Amber Snail, Succinea putris. Although not aquatic, it usually lives near water or in waterlogged habitats, and it is often found on the stems of aquatic plants. It cannot retract its body completely inside the shell, and the lower pair of tentacles is vestigial. I have no idea how this snail got into our garden, but snails, despite being slow and strongly dependent on humidity, are known to disperse widely. In the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin believed birds were the most common long range dispersal agents of snails and other aquatic animals and plants. In 1893, Harry Wallis Kew reviewed the dispersal of land and water molluscs, and discusses the evidence for external transport on the feathers of birds:
Sir C. Lyell, remarking on the wide range of Succinea putris, a land-shell which inhabits moist places on the borders of pools and streams suggested that water-fowl might have distributed its ova entangled among their feathers and it seems quite likely that ova of certain terrestrial kinds may be occasionally thus carried, either in the feathers or on the feet of birds; indeed, we have a near approach to proof of such transportal, the Rev. Canon Tristram, as we have seen, having once found ova, believed to be those of a Succinea, upon one of the feet of a mallard shot by him, on the wing, in the desert of Sahara. It is doubtful, however, whether Succinea, from the nature of the localities they often or usually inhabit, ought not, for the present purpose, to be classed with fresh-water, rather than with land-shells. Mr. Darwin suggested that the just-hatched young, possibly, might sometimes crawl upon the feet of ground-roosting birds, and thus get transported; and it certainly seems in the highest degree probable that such is the case, but, as far as I know, no observations in support of such a supposition have yet been made.
A tantalizing possibility, also first put by Darwin, is that of internal transport of organisms in the digestive tract of birds. Many bird species feed on snails, and given that no gastric juices occur in bird's crop, they can potentially survive for a while and maybe be discharged later elsewhere by the bird, or regurgitated by raptor if the bird falls prey to it. Kew stated:
 Twenty specimens of a Succinea, peculiarly packed together, and four of Pupa viuscornvi were once found by Mr. W. H. Dikes in the crop of a bearded titmouse (Parus biarmicus); all the shells, it is said, were uninjured, but it is not stated that any were observed lo be alive.
In 1968, Biggs reported on the recovery of a living Succinea putris from a pigeon's crop at least 8 h after the bird had died. Indeed, although it seems even more unlikely, some snails can survive passage through the whole digestive tract of birds provided the shell is more or less unbroken. This has recently been shown to happen to a small estuarine snail, Hydrobia ulvae, which can survive passage through the digestive tract of Shelducks, and also in some small Japanese terrestrial snails, Tornatellides boeningi a proportion of which were recovered alive in the feces of two species of terrestrial bird they had been fed to.
I don't think any of these forms of dispersal apply to the particular little snail in the above photo. Maybe it travelled on a pot plant we bought some time back in a garden centre, or, stuck to our clothes or shoes during an outing into some wetlands. Maybe, but just that any of the forms of transport Darwin and Kew discussed actually happen to snails shows you don't need wings to fly high.

Biggs, H. E. J. (1968). Succinea putris (L.) in a pigeon's crop Conchologist Newsletter, 24: 36.
Gerhard Cadée (2011). Hydrobia as "Jonah in the whale": shell repair after passing through the digestive tract of shelducks alive. Palaios, 26 (4), 245-249 DOI: 10.2110/palo.2010.p10-095r
Darwin, C.R. (1959) On the Origin of Species. Read the book here.
Kew, H.W. (1893) The dispersal of shells: an inquiry into the means of dispersal possessed by fresh-water and land Mollusca. K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd. Read the book here.
Shinichiro Wada, Kazuto Kawakami and Satoshi Chiba (2011). Snails can survive passage through a bird's digestive system. Journal of Biogeography : doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2011.02559.x

1 comment:

Feri said...

This is indeed a very interesting topic...and perfectly fits to my current interest: how could small amber snails (Succinea oblonga) colonize green roofs of Helsinki? :)