Why snails have sex
By Peter Laurie | Sun, July 01, 2012 - 12:00 AM
I guess the title of this column should have a question mark. I really don’t know why snails have sex.
This deep philosophical question arose early one morning when I was pottering in the yard. I saw several African snails coupled. I knew they were having sex rather than gossiping because of the extraordinarily long white thingy on display.
So, what’s the big deal, you may ask? All animals have sex. Ah hah, but the African snail can reproduce asexually. It doesn’t need a partner.
I asked my brother, the scientist, who is a fount of knowledge both useful and useless. He told me that from a genetic point of view it’s better to have sex with other people than with yourself. Well, those were not his exact words, but this is a family newspaper.
That still didn’t answer my question. Snails don’t give a damn about genetics. All they want to do is eat dead leaves and dog poo and procreate.
So I went on the Internet. I found out that the African snail is a hermaphrodite: each snail comes equipped with male and female sex organs. This led me to deeper philosophical questions: are snails conflicted sexually? What are the signs of sexual arousal with two organs?
“Snails have a rather odd way of mating; males/females will develop a large bulge on the side of their heads. This will be filled with sperm, which he/she will inject into the male/female upon mating. To get the snails to mate requires no input at all . . . when they are ready, they will do it!”
Yeah, right. The last bit of information was totally unnecessary. I mean we all mate when we are ready: some romantic music, a glass of wine and so on. I assume snails have the equivalent: the wind rustling in the rotting leaves, a little dog poo and so on.
But the rest of the info led me into even deeper philosophical speculation. First, I see a lot of big-head men walking about the place in St John. Can I therefore make certain assumptions about what’s causing their heads to bulge?
The second perplexing issue was snail sexual orientation. I mean, with all the talk about same-sex marriages, snails seem to be the perfect same-sex couple. Wikipedia further informed me that:
“Two snails of differing sizes will mate, with the larger individual acting as a female. This is due to the comparative resource investment associated with the different genders.” I don’t know what that last sentence means. Sounds like social science-speak. Maybe snails just like their women on the hefty side. Or maybe your sexual orientation is determined by your size relative to your proposed partner? Fascinating.
Even more info from Wikipedia:
“Like other land snails, the Giant African snails have intriguing mating behaviour, including petting their heads and front parts against each other. Courtship can last up to half an hour, and the actual transfer of gametes can last for two hours.”
Wow! These critters are not wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am types. So ladies, my advice: get your man off Viagra; start feeding him African snails. Result: half an hour of intriguing foreplay with your head and two hours of gametes transfer. Now tell me, could you ask for anything more?
Finally, as a student of theology, I started wondering whether you could call these snails good Catholics. They produce 200 eggs at one go and have six layings a year. These slippery little suckers are really into procreation, which is a big deal for us Catholics.
But hold on. Would the Vatican approve of their sexual ambiguity? According to the Bible, God created us as heterosexuals: Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Then why on earth did God make creatures that could be Adam, Eve, Steve and Madge in one and the same body? So unnatural. So weird.
So why do snails have sex?
Your guess is as good as mine.
• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and commentator on social issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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