Posted by: floridanature | June 28, 2009

At Play in the Fields of the Lord: Snail Aplomb

There are certainly more charismatic animals than the snail. But few have the sheer versatility to function with as much aplomb—if, indeed, a tiny mollusk clothed in calcium can be said to have such a quality. Perhaps it’s the shell that does it, allowing for at least an appearance of stoic composure.  This may be no different from  local TV news anchors shielding themselves inside a theatrical armor of suits, fancy dresses, and coifs. Unless they stumble over a word on the teleprompter, they will seem  the perfect  model of self assurance and erudition.



There are Old World myths about snails, and perhaps the pre-Columbians on the peninsula of La Florida even had their own stories about the iconic value of the little guys.  We know the gods of the “earth people” were many, and reigned over very specific chores on their cosmic playing fields—to bring rain and hurricanes, to grow cassava and to bring fish into hand-woven fiber nets, and of course, to right some terrible wrong. God usually had their own totems, like Chaac the rain god of the Maya, which was carved into temples and sacrificial altars. Back home here on the St. Johns, we see totemic sculptures, like the owl, pelican, and otter found in the benthic mud near Hontoon Island on the St. Johns.


River gods here were often skillful predators in real life—animals that morphed into protector spirits that steathfully maneuvered the Netherworld on behalf of its clan. In this case, the diminutive and cryptic nature of the snail may have kept it from this particular high- profile utility.

Yet, we know most of the midden mounds along this river—a river that held more middens than any other in North America—were comprised mostly of snail shells. The reasoning is simple: Snails like the mystery silt snail (Viviparus georgianus) were simply easy to harvest. While I have found shards of the much larger apple snail in these mounds along with pieces of freshwater mussels,  it is the harder shell of Viviparus that weathers time the best.

Once when I was in Amazonia researching a magazine story about freshwater dolphins upstream of Iquitos,  our old clunky riverboat sometimes stopped at  villages, huts of wood and thatch atop the high muddy banks of the ever-surging Amazon. During one stop, I saw a small mango tree hung with a dozen or so of the empty shells of an apple snail—-clearly, a much larger species than the Pomacea  I see back in Florida. I asked about it, and was told it was a act of sacrament, one intended to make the tree bear an abundance of fruit.

A few years later in Florida, I was paddling on the Withloochochee River with a grad class from USF because professors there had asked me to help teach a course about the literature of rivers. That river rose up from the great Green Swamp, a complex system of seasonally-wet  flatwoods, swamps, and marshes that births three other rivers, sending each off into different directions in the SW Florida landscape. It was on that paddle that I first saw the clues of an exotic snail in the form of a splotch of brightly colored pinkish eggs on a cypress stump. This was the channeled apple snail, an exotic import that was becoming increasingly troublesome. Not only did it aggressively elbow its way into the natural Florida habitat, it upped the ante a few notches: It also ate its native brethern.ChAppEggs

I have collected aquatic snails from the St. Johns before, and brought them back to my aquarium and to my backyard pond. Once in the pond, they usually vanish from sight, and go happily on their way, quietly realizing their snaildom . But the aquarium has that wonderful ant farm-quality about it wherein nearly everything that goes on is visible, whether it wants to be or not. I consulted a guidebook to Florida snails by the malacologist Dr. Fred Thompson and learned my snails with the small, flatten spirals of shell were called goldenhorn marisa.  Like many snails, they seemed content with their plight in life, grazing algae and whatever else they could find.

marisaBut, as with other snails—including the giant sea snail known as the queen conch—the goldenhorns had a secret that was seldom seen:  They came into the world not as pint-size miniatures of their mommas, but as eggs that hatched into free-swimming larva. Like the queen conch, the larva of the marisa evolved through several stages before finally metamophisizing as a shell-wearing snail the size of a pin head. Then they settled down to the bottom, from where they would then navigate through the rest of their lives.

In a way, that transformation was captured in an old Chinese fable that has been translated in the book “How the Snail Got Its Shell.” In ancient times long ago, the snail was not slow at all—indeed, it had no shell, and was one of the fastest animals on earth. Then one fateful day, as the butterflies, ants, and bees went about their righteous business in the rice field, the sky turned gray and pelleted the earth with heavy rain and mud. The snail, being quicker than the others, saw an empty shell and made a run for it, comfortably waiting out the storm inside. Other critters coveted the shell and the safety it provided, but the snail would not relinquish it. When the storm finally ended, the snail stayed in his shell for fear others would commandeer it.  He stayed and stayed, until finally, he and the shell were one. The world went on, with the snail in it. But now he had to drag his home around with him, and his agility and quickness were forever lost. A Faustian trade?  I’m guessing only in the snail knows for sure, and he isn’t talking—with or without a teleprompter.

100_4922Snails have other symbolic uses, too, and the one most of us here in Florida should care about is its ability to function as a barometer, an indicator species that tells us whether the water in which it lives is healthy or not. A few years ago, I followed Dr. Thompson around in the swamps of the Wekiva River basin in order to film portions of a documentary about that river. We went to Sharks Tooth Spring and Sweetgum Spring, and others that were just then being mapped. Over a course of a very few days, Thompson discovered six new species of snail. All lived in the runs of tiny springs, and each was  found no where else on earth. Thompson told me about the vulnerability of his animal of choice—that if pollution generated upland or upstream from the snail clouds its waters, the snail will suffer badly. “These guys are the first to get whacked,” Thompson said. They can’t swim away quickly like fish, or walk away like some crustaceans. “These snails are true homebodies; all live inside a 100-yard linear stream.” When pollution arrives, they must simply sit there and bear it, slowly suffocating to death.(That’s why a snail Thompson discovered years ago in Sanlando Spring in “The Springs” development can no longer be found there.

Meanwhile, back in my aquarium at home, I watch my goldenhorn marisas closely. Every once in a while, the entire lot of them—say, a dozen or so—migrate from the bottom to the top of the tank, as close to the water’s surface as they can get. That’s because there’s been a problem with the dissolved oxygen down below— maybe an electrical outage cut off the pump that helps bring O2 into the water. No matter, the little guys make a run for it—and, once I see it, I do what I can to bring some stasis back into their tiny shelled lives.

Which brings me to a report issued by Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection the other day. It identified over 80 “impaired waters” up and down the St. Johns River, including some not so very far from me in Lakes Harney and Monroe. Much of the impairment was due to the lack of dissolved oxygen —thanks to the thoughtlessness that treats our rivers as giant sumps for our fertilizers, pesticides and stormwater.

applesnailAt the same time DEP was releasing its list of impaired waters, the river’s Water Management District was busy making plans to pump surface water from it. They are doing so because they’ve screwed up management of our underground aquifer so badly  it’s no longer sustainable. I have tried to ponder the wisdom of this reality, and honestly, can only come up with great, thick boulders of irony, as heavy and as intractable as the stuplyfyingly poor wisdom of the WMD and its board of mostly political appointees — some so obtuse they wouldn’t know an aquifer from an aquaduct.

Many within the development biz here see no problem with this disconnect. Indeed, most of them are directly responsible for the blight that is sweeping across our landscape right now—a plaque in which greed and not locusts ruins a legacy that is commonly shared by us all. A national magazine recently referred to this way of doing business as a giant Ponzi scheme wherein future Floridians will pay for the current sprawl and sins of our greedy water-sucking developers  and their political toadies.

another small Wekiva spring

another small Wekiva spring



I think if one of the pre-Columbian river gods could come back from wherever gods go when their people are no longer alive to honor them, things might be different. Maybe the playing field would be leveled, and responsibility would rain from the sky like the torrents in the old Chinese parable. Perhaps, it would be developers , magically shrunk down to match the size of their ethic, who wear shells and dwell at the bottom of Florida springs and rivers. They would drive around in bitsy BMW’s and hoard great mounds of algae, just because they could. And it would be goldenhorn marisas—and fish and other living things —who periodically visit to drop electrical prods into the water, shocking the bejesus out of all the selfish little shell-people who exist there. 

And the gods, having leveled the playing field once more, would sit back on their haunches and, certain that the natural world had regained its equilibrium, would smile. It would be a smile of great aplomb.



  1. Developers and slimy bottom-feeders. Hmmm. Interesting, thought-provoking metphor.

  2. Thanks much for the comment, Fred. Well, there certainly are well-meaning folks who build and develop in a sustainable manner. But am figuring if they were in the majority we wouldn’t be running out of water…Give my best to Marehootie.

  3. Love the image of the Ponzi — the generational trickle-down with the the big payup dumped on the shoulders of the far-away unborn.

  4. The Albino Mystery Snail was devlouped in south Florida ie South Miami area by Carl A. Immeke, late 50s early 60s. Carl was a tropical fish farmer that raised Betta’s, or Siamese Fighting Fish, and fancy Killi Fish as well as the Mystery snails. One day he noticed that some of the snails were golden, and had pink eyes, and he reallized he was looking at a Albiino snail. He then separated them out and kept only the golden ones, and released them when he had hundreds saved up to sell. I am the oldest of his 3 sons. There were several articles written up by the local “Fish Trader Magazine” at the time. My name is Carl W. Immeke, and I live in the Daytona area of Florida. I am a local musician here in Central Fl.

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