Humpback Snail

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The Humpback Snail (Helix novaeangliae), known variously throughout its large range as the blue snail, the killer snail, or the duck-badger-cow-wugga-wugga, is a very large species of obligatorily aquatic air-breathing land snail. Considered to be the largest of all the snails, adults of the Iberian and Icelandic subspecies range in length from 12–16 meters (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb), while more southerly subspecies weigh considerably less.

The Humpback Snail coming up for air.

Humpback snails have a strong muscular foot, like other snails, however the foot of the Humpback Snail is greatly enlarged and formed into a fin. Like other mollusks, Humpback Snails have a mantle and they have one or five pairs of tentacles on their head. Their internal anatomy includes a radula and an unusually advanced brain, comparable to that of a chimpanzee or a rocky mountain bighorn sheep. Many humpback snails have shells that are right-handed in their coiling, but just as many have shells that curl left or even upwards. The snail may be able to store up to a month's worth of oxygen in a special hollow chamber in its shell, known as a buffa, or it may not be able to.

Found in most oceans and seas around the world, with the largest populations in the warm waters around the equator, the Humpback Snail is nevertheless very seclusive, rarely coming to the surface and then only for a quick breath with its long proboscis. Because of its secretive behavior, the Humpback Snail didn't become known to science until 1938, when a carcass washed ashore on a beach in South Africa.

Like other large snails, the Humpback Snail was and still is a target for the snailing industry. Due to over-hunting, its population fell by an estimated 98% before a snailing moratorium was introduced in 1966. Stocks have since partially recovered; however, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and the disposal of six-pack soda wrappers, which fatally entangle the eye stalks and gill slooples of snails, also remain concerns. There are at least 80,000 Humpback Snails worldwide. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, Humpbacks are now sought by snail-watchers, particularly off parts of Australia, where the largest population, over 50,000 individuals, is thought to live, and by snail-ticklers.

Diet[edit | edit source]

Like most other land snails, the adult Humpback is almost exclusively carnivorous, feeding mainly on fish and crustaceans and, where abundant, seabirds. Humpback Snails living in more southerly regions may eat nothing but whale calves for six months of the year, and far northern individuals have been seen hunting polar bears through holes in the pack ice. In rare instances, they have been seen to eat jellyfish and even the discarded stomach linings of goats and sheep.

Habits[edit | edit source]

The Humpback Snail, unlike most other marine land snails, is highly gregarious and sociable. Pairs bond for life, a marriage that may last 211 years. Pairs of Humpback Snails are inseparable once bonded, and if one dies the other will feast on its carcass and then die as well, as tribute.

Hunting in pairs greatly increases a Humpback's odds, and as a result snails that hunt this way are just under 3% more likely to make a kill on each hunt then their solitary counterparts.

Even a lone Humpback Snail need only eat a few thousand pounds of flesh per day, which is easily obtained in a few short hours, and so spends the vast majority of its time is spent resting on the sea floor. During this behavior, known as dipumpleing, a Humpback Snail's hearts stop beating and either one of its brains may shut off for up to sixteen hours. While it dipumples, a Humpback Snail is oblivious to the world around it, a weakness once exploited by snailers, who would take advantage of the Humpback Snail's obligate need to dipumple each morning at eleven AM and would follow it, spears in hand, until it succumbed to the urge. They would then drive up to five hundred spears into the animal and haul it ashore to drain it of the valuable oil, produced in the snail's crop, known as mayonnaise.

Sometimes, in between hunting and dipumpleing, male Humpback Snails will masturbate themselves with their chin tentacles. This little-understood behavior is known as ghychiflishincking and is also seen in males of many other species, including earthworms, feet, and deer.

Defenses[edit | edit source]

While an adult Humpback Snail is almost unkillable, the juveniles are prey to a host of carnivores, including sharks, marine reptiles, large pelicans, and both aquatic species of octopus. In an attempt to protect themselves against predators, Humpback Snails retract their soft parts into their shell when they are resting. However, their shell does not form until the young Humpback Snail is five years old. Before then, the young are completely defenseless and can only bite vigorously with their sharp scraping mouth parts when attacked.

Humpback Snails retain vestigial venom glands in their jaws like those used by their distant ancestors for defense, but in the modern species these are greatly reduced in size and in adults are no longer functional. Their retention may be sex related and used to indicate availability for fertilisation by other Humpback Snails in the area.

Reproduction[edit | edit source]

The Humpback Snail is the only known snail species that is not a hermaphrodite; rather, both males and females occur, occasionally along with a third gender known as a shnighmale, which is sterile. Humpback Snails, like other mollusks, only breed twice per year, weather permitting, no rain checks, and once they have successfully mated will stay with that one partner for life. However, male Humpbacks, unlike most other snails, are notoriously bad at mating and may kill upwards of eleven females before learning not to chew into their mate's brain during copulation. Eventually, once the snail gets this down, the pair is set and will remain unwaveringly faithful, unless one or both is not. If that happens, marital cannibalisation occurs.

Anyway, the Humpback Snails breed twice per year - once in late spring, once in early autumn, and after a three-week gestation period the female births one to three offspring, called cubs or kittens - miniature versions of their non-miniature parents in miniature. The Humpback is believed to be the only mollusk that gives birth to live young - this is apparently a great evolutionary step up from other mollusks, which give birth to dead young.

The mother dotingly cares for her kittens, regularly grooming them and bringing them tidbits of baby porpoises and manatee flippers to eat, while the father watches indifferently from a distance, sometimes dipumpleing, sometimes masturbating or just watching fish pass by. After a few weeks, the kittens disperse into the open ocean, where almost nine out of ten of them will die within days, mostly from predators ( see Liopleurodon) but also from periodic bouts of invariably fatal deathiness, a syndrome that can affect young Humpback Snails for up to a year after birth.

If they survive their first fifty or sixty seasons, the young will then pair up and have young of their own. By then they will be as large as their parents and far too dangerous for any other aquatic predator, except for perhaps the great black-finned gihrankyinu, to mess with.

In Captivity[edit | edit source]

Unlike most other marine organisms, such as the giant squid, the thalattosuchians, or the various dolphins, the Humpback Snail does not take well to captivity, While easily caught with pheromone lures and relatively easy to transport long distances, the Humpback snails almost invariably stop eating and waste away in confinement. In fact, only one Humpback Snail ever captured survived more than a day - a young female named Martha who lived for almost twenty years in Chicago's Brookfield Zoo (see below). Modern zoos and aquariums are experimenting with new, more modern methods to keep humpback snails alive in captivity. These include, among other things, allowing the Humpback Snails access to water and giving them regular feedings. There are also plans to set up a television channel dedicated just to them to keep them interested in life.

Martha[edit | edit source]

In 1958, a young Humpback Snail made itself at home on the grounds of Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, where she wuld remain for the rest of her life. For the next nineteen years and five months, Martha amused visitors by sitting on the ground and sometimes moving various parts of her body. In the early dawn hours of June 19, 1977, Martha vanished from the zoo without a trace, leaving only her bloody, somewhat flattened and quite lifeless body laying under a car tire as a clue. It is now believed that she was abducted by aliens in the night.

Recently resurfaced evidence now suggests that Martha may not have been a female humpback snail named Martha, but rather a male tabby cat named Mittens, and so the mystery continues.