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New research shows snails aren’t as slow as we think

28.02.2007
On the surface snails don’t come across as the brightest in the animal kingdom, but new research at the University of Sunderland suggests they are not as slow as they look.

The university’s Professor Mark Davies has been studying snails for the past ten years and his latest research has confirmed something he has believed for quite some time.

He and masters student Janine Blackwell have been studying marine snails off the coast of South Tyneside in the belief that they use each other’s mucus trails in order to save vital energy – and they seem to be right.

Snails use a third of their energy creating mucus trails in order to move around, mostly to find food and a partner.

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»Energy »mucus

Prof Davies has found that by using existing trails these particular snails, and more than likely all snails, have to create only a fraction of the mucus needed to make a new trail.

One of the obvious benefits is that snails living in environments where food is scarce may be able to survive as they do not need as much energy to create trails.

While biologists have long believed that this could be the case, this is the first time it has been proven.

His findings will appear in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, which comes out tomorrow (Wednesday, February 28).

Prof Davies and Ms Balckwell spent several months researching the snails and measuring the thickness of their trails.

He said: “Snails expend a lot of energy, probably one third, creating mucus. This process is very taxing indeed – much more so than walking, swimming or flying.

“The fact that they can make savings has a knock on effect in as much as they have more energy to do other things like reproduce.

“It took a long time to measure the mucus and it was very difficult, but after several unsuccessful attempts we managed it.

“What we found was that these trails have a convex cross section. Once a second snail went down the trail we expected the trail to be twice as thick but it wasn’t – it was a lot less.

“If it was a fairly new trail the snails didn’t have to lay much mucus, but if it was a weathered trail then they had to lay more.

“How it knows we have no idea but the animal seems to be recreating the profile of the trail as originally laid. However, the energy it saves is quite dramatic.

“They don’t follow trails all the time as they would all be following each other. We don’t know yet how far they are following them.

“While we researched marine snails, the chances are that all species of snails will follow trails because of the energy they will save.

“This is a very good start to finding out more about the lives of snails.”

Tony Kerr | alfa
Further information:
http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/caffairs/septhm.htm

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