Snails or “Thirty-Seven Gallons of Terror”
Swallowing hard, I caught the scream rising in my throat and replaced it with a terrified gasp. From the vantage point on his green micro-fiber throne, Prince Luca opened one yellow eye and glared accusingly as I stepped backward. Deciding I was in no real danger—and that my interruption of his sleep could be forgiven—he stretched and rolled onto his back before closing his eye again.
Meanwhile I fought to catch my breath. This couldn’t be happening again.
Breathe, I thought, allowing a few moments to calm my racing heart. Perhaps I hadn’t seen what I thought I’d seen; it was still early in the morning and I hadn’t had any coffee yet. It was possible I was still asleep. Any moment I might wake and realize all of this was just a horrible nightmare.
I knew I wasn’t sleeping.
Slowly, bracing for the terror once more, I stepped up to the fish tank and raised the lid.
There it was, undeniable; a golden egg sack clung like a honeycomb to the tank’s lid. I left the horror there in the tank and went to sit, hard, at the edge of Prince Luca’s throne. As I rubbed the soft fur of his belly he opened his eyes again, questioning.
“Snails.” I said. “What are we going to do?”
A Big Mistake
“Are you sure?” Brian asked as we stood in the fish aisle of the pet store. “They look kind of—gross!”
It was July of 2011 and the 37-gallon freshwater tank we’d brought home two weeks ago was finally stable enough to add a few new residents. We’d already spent a half hour debating the merits of these fish over those, and finally settled on black-skirt tetras and some zebra danios.
“Yes I’m sure. I had them in a tank when I was a teenager. Listen, you’re going to love them! They’re really cute, actually. Just wait until they lay their egg sacks and you get to see all the adorable babies crawling around. Plus, they’ll keep the tank really clean!”
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Revenge is better with a side of bacon. . .
I watched as he considered. He knew how much I loved snails—the way I always stopped and gushed when I found them crawling across the monastery wall up the street from our house, or ambling slowly across the vegetables in our back garden.
“Alright,” he said. “Are they even for sale?”
The fish lady returned from her bagging station with our tetras and danios, clearly relieved to be free of us and our indecision. “Gentlemen,” she said as she handed me the bags, “It’s been a real pleasure.”
“Oh, also,” I said as the fish lady turned to walk away, “How much are those?”
She turned and considered the direction I was pointing. Raising her eyebrows she flashed a malicious grin. “Those? The pond snails? Honey, you don’t want those. Nobody wants those.”
I raised my chin in defiance. “I want them.”
“You know they breed, don’t you?”
“I’ve had them before. That’s what I love about them.”
“I really think you’ll regret it, but, if you’re sure, you can have them for free. They’re pests.”
“Alright, I accept your warning. We’ll take four.”
The new snails (and the fish) took well to our tank, and Brian grew to love the little mollusks as much as I did. It was a joy watching them crawl across the glass, scrubbing the tank of algae and eating the dead plant material from the amazon swords that populated the tank. The day we found our first gelatinous egg sack was an occasion to celebrate. Within a couple weeks our four snails had multiplied to twenty, and we had the makings of a village on our hands.
I wasn’t lying when I said I’d enjoyed pond snails as a teenager, but my mischievous friend Nostalgia has a way of making things out to be a lot better than they were. I’d enjoyed watching the population fluctuate in my old 15-gallon tank as the ecosystem met its carrying capacity and the little guys quit reproducing until the population decreased. Then, when numbers were low, the egg sacks would reappear and the cycle could repeat.
But this was a 37-gallon tank, and within a few months we had a real problem.
“There are hundreds of them!” Brian said, with more than a hint of exasperation. “When are they going to stop laying eggs?”
“I don’t know. Maybe this was a mistake.” Indeed, some days it was tough to see the fish through the snails, crawling constantly over every inch of the tank walls.
“How do we get rid of them? We can’t kill them.”
Finally we settled on a plan. We’d go after the eggs. To be honest, I have to give Brian most of the credit here, because he spent the next couple years removing every egg sack he saw. Invariably we’d miss some—hiding on the underside of a leaf, or far to the back of the tank—but through diligent, sustained effort, our last pond snail died of natural causes sometime in 2014. Finally, our beautiful tank was snail free again.
Of course I missed them almost immediately, but the fish lady was right; they were pests. We’d moved since then, and I no longer had a monastery up the road or a vegetable garden. I resigned myself to living life snail-free.
We Can Get Just One
Late last year, as we strolled through the pet store looking for a few new fish to replace the last of the original black skirts (yes, they lived for five years and through two house-moves) a flash of gold caught my eye in one of the tanks.
“Look Brian!” I pointed to a tank full of beautiful, large, Gold Inca Snails. “We could get just one, couldn’t we?”
He sighed, “Have you already forgotten how that turned out last time?”
“Last time we had four, and they were pond snails. What is one snail going to do? Look at how gorgeous it is!”
I know he couldn’t deny the allure of that spiraling, golden shell, or the creamy pink, speckled body. Still, he tried to resist. “Aren’t some snails hermaphrodites?”
“Yeah, but not this one,” I said, based on absolutely no knowledge of the matter. “And even if I’m wrong, it can’t fertilize its own eggs!”
Brian knows how much I love snails. “Alright,” he agreed. “Just one.”
Famous Last Words
It turns out Gold Inca Snails are not only hermaphrodites, but they are more than capable of fertilizing their own eggs. While I was able to scrape away two egg sacks this morning, we missed one entirely that has been attached to the side of the tank just above waterline for who knows how long.
And now it’s empty. . .
At last count I have identified seven adorable baby Gold Incas crawling around this morning. I’m thrilled, but also terrified.
It was one thing to have hundreds of snails smaller than a pea, it’ll be a whole other to have goodness knows how many the size of an avocado pit. I suppose we should be honored that our tank is such a paragon of health Mama Inca is happy enough to reproduce, but I’m worried.
It’s happening again.
The good news is, a little research suggests Gold Incas will only lay their eggs above water line, so they should be easy to find as long as we remain vigilant!
I’ll end on a positive note. In addition to our Czech heritage, I can add a love of snails to things my literary hero Patricia Highsmith and I have in common. Here’s an alarmingly relevant passage from her novel ‘Deep Water:’
“He bent over one aquarium, watching the snails he called Edgar and Hortense as they slowly approached each other, lifted their heads, kissed, and glided on. They would probably mate this afternoon, in the light rain that filtered through the screen. They mated about once every week, and they were genuinely in love, Vic thought, because Edgar had eyes for no other snail but Hortense and Hortense never responded to the attempt of another snail to kiss her. Three-quarters of the thousand-odd snails he had were their progeny. They were quite considerate of each other as to which had the burden of egg-laying—a twenty-four-hour procedure at least—and it was only Vic’s opinion that Hortense laid more often than Edgar, which was why he had given her the feminine name. That was true love, Vic thought, even if they were only gastropoda.”
How about your thoughts? Have you ever had an aquarium? What is your opinion of snails? Fascinating, delicious with butter, or slugs with shells? Any ideas about population control? Enlighten me in the comments section below.
Thanks as always for reading, and let me know if you’re in the market for some baby snails. . . I’ve got a few!