April 21st, 2008

How I Lost Hercules, and Found Him Again

How I Lost Hercules, and Found Him Again

I have a pet snail called Hercules.  He is a milk snail (Otala lactea) and very handsome.  He lives in a little terrarium with a huge garden snail (Helix aspersa) called Buster.  They get along fine, even though they like the same things in life (lettuce, veggies, cat kibble, cool moist soil and plants to crawl around on), mostly because they ignore each other.

Yesterday evening I fed them and noticed that huge Buster was still sleeping inside his little coconut shell house.  Hercules was sleeping on the side of the tank, near the soil line.  I left them alone to wake up in their own time to have dinner. I then went to go check on my 20-some-odd garlic snails (Oxychilus alliarius), housed in 2 other tanks in another room.  I went back and forth between the three tanks, removing the uneaten food from the day before, spraying cool mist inside, checking to see if anyone needed more cuttle, pulling off dead leaves from the terrarium plants, watching the early risers stirring from their day-long slumber.  It's a soothing evening routine, observing these slow, placid creatures living their quiet, sedate lives.

Later that night I took another look at the big tank with Buster and Hercules.  I saw Buster was out and eating some lettuce but couldn't see Hercules.  That happens sometimes.  Snails have natural camouflage, plus there are lots of little hiding places in his tank.  I thought little of it and decided not to bother opening the tank to poke around for him, and went to bed.

Late this afternoon I took my first look of the day at the terrarium, and I could not find Hercules.  I saw huge Buster, again sleeping inside the little coconut shell.  But Hercules was nowhere to be found.  I poked around behind all the plants in the tank: no Hercules.  I lifted up a large piece of lettuce to see if he'd crawled underneath: no Hercules.  I double-checked the underside of the tank's lid to see if he was there, sleeping or estivating upside-down: no Hercules.

Hercules had left the terrarium.


The tank's lid snaps on securely, and I never replace the lid without making sure both ends have snapped into place.  Hercules is a snail.  He doesn't even have a skeleton, let alone hands with opposable thumbs.  There is no way he could have opened the lid and crawled out.  But he was simply not in the tank.

A weird thought crossed my mind that maybe huge Buster decided to turn carnivorous and eat Hercules during the night.  But there wasn't even an empty shell to be found.  He was not in the tank in any way, shape or form.

So where was he?

D. and I looked randomly all around the terrarium, on the carpet, on the outside of the tank, and inside the tank again out of sheer desperation, all the while wondering how on Earth we were going to find a one-inch long snail roaming around our house.  Hercules's shell is very pale, but so is the carpet; he would blend right in.  I did not want to find him the hard way, by hearing a crunch underfoot.  What if he crawled farther away and got behind some furniture?  We'd never find him then, and if he didn't die from dehydration he'd die from starvation while estivating.  And all the while his cozy, moist, cool home, full of succulent cucumber and lettuce, with a nice stick to climb up and a little coconut shell house to hide in, was so close by!  It was too saddening to think about.

And then suddenly we found him, mere inches from his home -- he had crawled up a leaf on the spider plant on the table next to his tank, and was asleep, none the worse for wear.  Amazement and relief competed for dominance in my feelings as I looked him over, soon replaced entirely by puzzlement while replacing him into his tank.

I could not understand how Hercules got from inside the tank to the spider plant, unless I had left the lid of the tank off for too long yesterday evening while feeding the snails, and didn't notice he'd made an exit when I was attending the garlic snails in the other room.

I guess he crept up the side of the tank and along the top rim to where the spider plant leaf was hanging close by.  Or he could have crawled down the outside of the tank, along the table, up the side of the flower pot, across the soil and up the spider plant leaf.  Snails like to climb up, because they instinctively know it will protect them from ground-based predators.  D. and I see thousands of milk snails estivating on vegetation when we go on our field trips to nearby wildlife refuges and preserves in the area.  So Hercules was just doing what came naturally to him.  I'm just so glad he did so right next to his tank.  I'm so glad I was able to find him and put him back in his home, safe and sound.

And from now on, no more leaving the lid to the tank off if I leave the room!  Who would have thought a snail would be too fast for me!