Picture Jeremy, looking for his next juicy leaf, quietly going about the ordinary everyday business of your regular suburban snail. Without warning, a hand descends from above and plucks him from obscurity. And so Jeremy is launched on a trajectory to super-stardom.
To my untutored eye, one snail looks much like any other. So what makes Jeremy the One in a Million?
Simply that this snail’s shell, funkily, spirals to the left. Anticlockwise. Not the usual clockwise, like the other 999,999 snails we encounter daily here in the damp northwest of England, munching their way through our garden plants.
Is that really much to get excited about? All it took to qualify J for stardom? Dr Angus Davison at the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences thinks so. In his 20 years of studying the genetics of snails he’d never come across a lefty like Jeremy.
But how on earth was this super-special snail even discovered? If Jeremy had taken up residence in my garden, there’d be no way I would ever have noticed his extraordinary-ness. I didn’t even know that a garden snail’s shell (almost) always coils clockwise. Fortunately for him, or maybe unfortunately, who knows, Jeremy had chosen a very particular compost heap for his chomping that day. The compost heap was in the garden belonging to – what are the chances – a retired scientist from the Natural History Museum. And not just any old NHM retired scientist either, but one who already knew about Dr Davison’s work. Jeremy was discovered, and soon found himself on his way, first class, to Nottingham and fame.
But fame, even the kind that extends no further than the Nottingham School of Life Sciences, has its drawbacks. Jeremy was all alone. Now we must get down to brass tacks: it wasn’t just shell-wise that Jeremy was a lefty. His leftward inclination ran right through all his major organs including his genitals. No common or garden righty snail was going to be a good fit for him, IYKWIM.
If you’re one in a million, how do you find your match, your perfect other half? Dr Davison set out on the improbable search for a snaily suitor, another lefty just like J. The good doctor’s intent, if truth be told, was less about providing congenial company for the super-snail, and more about creating the opportunity to discover whether Jeremy’s mutation was a quirk in his development, or a genetic inheritance. And for that he needed Jeremy to make babies.
So the doc went on national radio appealing for help in finding a suitable snail mate. And that’s when Jeremy the lefty snail went stratospheric! Almost overnight, the new ‘shellebrity’ gathered over a thousand followers on his Twitter account @leftysnail, and became an international media sensation. One of his many fans even penned a tragic love ballad about his lonely plight, and posted it on YouTube.
His meteoric rise to stardom reaped rewards in the shape of two prospective consorts, Lefty from Ipswich and Tomeu from Spain, the latter having a lucky escape from the cooking pot on a snail farm in Mallorca. Both were duly despatched to Nottingham.
Now before we come to the tragic twist in the super-snail’s story, there’s something you need to know about snails. We have dogs and bitches, sows and boars, stallions and fillies, lions and lionesses, cows and bulls, and so on. But snails don’t do male and female. They conveniently encompass both sexes in one glutinous body. They are among the select group of creatures, nearly all slimy and slithery, proud to call themselves hermaphrodites. (Which means I probably should have been referring to Jeremy/Jemima as she/he all through this tale. I refuse to call him/her ‘it’ – she/he is so much more. Please accept ‘he’ and ‘him’ as shorthand.)
In spite of the exciting arrival of the new lefties, Jeremy’s troubles were far from over. Maybe the two newbies hadn’t been properly briefed about what was expected of them. For once nicely settled in their new quarters, Lefty and Tomeu barely cast a glance in the direction of our lonely mollusc, and instead only had eyes for each other. And to add insult to Jeremy’s injury, their love match engendered 300 plus baby snail-lets.
And now it is with sorrow that I have to report, last Wednesday, Jeremy the super-special garden snail shuffled off his mortal coil and slid his way to snail heaven. I can’t tell you if his life was long as snail lives go, or happy, but there is one sweet final twist to his story. Shortly before Jeremy breathed his last, Tomeu produced another 56 babies, a third of which J could be reasonably satisfied were ‘the fruits of his loins’. (The remainder were Lefty’s, ‘fathered’ before he returned to his home in Ipswich.)
Jeremy’s babies? As with their 300 half-siblings before them, there’s not one lefty to be found among them. But Dr Davison lives in hope. He thinks he may well find what he is looking for in the next generation, a lefty like Jeremy.
So Rest in Lettuce, Jeremy. May you dwell forever where no scientist is seen, and only compost heaps and lefties abound.
No apologies will be made for the shameless anthropomorphism. It’s just my way of saying, a snail, even if not a rare lefty, is a person too.
I will be looking at the snails in my little patch with new interest. But I have to tell you Dr Davison, if I do find a Jeremy/Jemima, there’ll be no Nottingham for him/her. She/he will live out his/her days right here in quiet obscurity.
If you want to see a pic of the real Jeremy, and find out what Dr Davison has discovered about snail genetics, you will find it here: RIP Jeremy the lefty garden snail
22nd November 2017 Twisted sex allows mirror-image snails to mate face-to-face, research finds
10th January 2019 Goodbye George:Hawaii’s Snail Extinction Crisis
15th May 2019 How the snail’s shell got its coil Japanese scientists create lefty snails by pinpointing and removing gene that makes them coil to the right.