A younger and more reckless me used to say ‘garden snake’ when I meant ‘garter snake’. What’s the different between a garden snake and a garter snake? There is no recognized group of snakes called garden snakes. A garden snake is any ole snake you might find in your garden – be it a corn snake, a milk snake or a deadly black mambe. A garter snake is a group of snakes belonging to the genus Thamnophis. How did my older, more considerate self remember the difference? I thought of a snake wearing a garter belt to hold up its stockings. Well, stocking. The most common garter snake is the eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis. It is harmless and only likes to eat frogs, tadpoles, and insects – not people who can’t remember its name.
Here is a garter snake in Williamsburg, Virginia, that surprised me while I was hunting frogs outside of Jamestown Pies while I waited for my pizza to cook (frog hunting is an activity of opportunity).
And here is one from Newbury, Massachusetts, that emerge just as spring was happening. It was still cool and he let me lay inches from him and take his picture. I made sure to get his good side.
A wonderful video taken in a salt marsh ditch in Newbury, Mass. The fish is who wants to make sure the camera gets his good side is the mummichog, Fundulus heteroclitus. For scale, the snails are the size of a BB from a BB gun. In all my time in the salt marsh, I’ve never seen so many! I guess I’ve got to stick my head underwater more often. Thanks to DeRosa Environmental for bringing the video to my attention.
But not just any ole worm. A marine worm, which is the more ostentatious and terrifying version of the plain, simple earthworm. Some marine worms inspire beauty, others terror with their fangs, tentacles, and H.R. Geiger inspired faces! Find your inspiration below (these are all real worms).
Here’s a riddle: If you lived in your backpack with only your head and your feet sticking out, would you poop in your backpack?
Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. You’d move your anus and poop out of your shoulder, of course. Just like the snail did.
All mollusks – the squids, the octopi, the clams, the snails – can trace their family tree back to a common ancestor. We hypothesize that this ancestor looks like HAM (Hypothetical Ancestral Mollusca). This mollusk was snail-like with shallow conical shell. The wide opening of the shell allowed its alimentary system (the tube that starts with your mouth and ends at your other end) to be distributed how it is in many animals: mouth at one end and anus at the other.
Then Nature grabbed the shell of the snail and twisted it into an ice cream with a harder-than-candy shell (a process called torsion). As a result the opening through which everything happened (eating, pooping, crawling) got smaller. As the shell twisted, so too did its alimentary canal. The anus still needed to exit out the same, now smaller opening (because you don’t want to poop in your own backpack). The arrangement made the anus and mouth next door neighbors. If you’re looking for the anus of snail, look behind his head or just over his ‘shoulder’.
Maybe you’re having a hard time visualizing all of this. Or maybe you’re stuck in your backpack still trying to solve the riddle. Either way, I have more visual aids courtesy of an amber snail I found doing his business right there along the side of the road in Maine (such shameless little molluscs). You’ll notice his business is large proportional to the size of his body (far larger, proportionally, than anything any of your friends have bragged about).
Now that we know where the anus is, what about the snail’s breathing hole? Land snails have primitive lungs and breathe through a pneumatophore, his ‘nostril’. Real estate is tight so the snail’s ‘nostril’ is near the anus. In the picture below, the hole just above the, ahem, business, is his pneumatophore (follow the arrow). And no, I doubt he held his breath the entire time. He’s outdoors. It’s well-ventilated.
Amber snails have a relatively large aperture (opening) to their shells so they don’t evacuate on their heads, but many land snails do.
Middle-school jokes and nicknames begin in…no, onto more science!.
How about the penis! Behind the head. Vagina? Often next to the penis. Where else would you put it? Yeah, many snails, including the amber snail, are hermaphrodites. I used ‘he’ in the post because that’s the trouble with pronouns.
If you’re interested in your own alimentary canal and it’s adventures, then you should read GULP by Mary Roach. It’s a rootin’ tootin’ good time!
I reached into the water and pulled out a garlands of seaweed and snail eggs. Looking like small Chinese lanterns, scores of mudsnail egg cases lined the surface of the seaweed. The egglayer? The mudsnail Nassarius obsoletus (formerly Ilyanassa obsoleta). These snails live in soft-bottoms but have to lay their eggs on ‘hard’ surfaces. The very few rocks are often overgrazed by crabs and other snails, so a leafy stem or brown algae makes a fine place to leave a molluskan brood.