“Flipping Snails,” Redux*

*I’m on a limited schedule this week, due to a nasty virus that’s trying to make me cough up a lung (or both…it doesn’t seem picky on that point). In light of which, here’s a post that originally ran in 2011, with some updates:

February, 2011: An interesting side effect of owning an aquarium is that you end up running a “Life Alert” program for snails.

Half the snails I own cannot right themselves when they fall off the glass and land upside down in the sand. (Trochus, in particular, have cone-shaped shells that spike into the substrate on impact, leaving the snail to wave its foot in a futile attempt to attract attention and aid.) 

In the beginning this didn’t bother me. I checked the tank every morning and righted the unfortunates, happy to rescue them from a slow and unpleasant death.  But after the ninth consecutive week of righting marooned mollusks, I admit my enthusiasm has waned. (Note: as of this posting, in March 2016, I’m down to a single trochus, who seems to have learned not to fall on his back. The others mostly fell prey to the roving gang of peppermint shrimp who were only too happy to “help” the helpless snails–right into their greedy, peppermint stomachs.)

13D22 Turbo snail on glass

Not that I don’t enjoy getting shoulder-deep into tepid salt water to play tiddlywinks with a creature that has roughly the intelligence of soap. Really.

I particularly enjoy the days when my t-shirt sleeve slips into the water unnoticed and wicks up half a gallon of brine while I’m otherwise engaged. There’s just something about clammy cotton against the skin that makes a good deed feel that much better.


It occurred to me that I might be doing the little guys a favor by letting them flail. Perhaps it would teach the others to look before they leap. After all, if we cull the clumsy ones out of the herd, it might make the others think twice about that quick-release trip to the sand. That is, if they had the capacity to think.  Or reason. Or process thoughts beyond “food, mouth, whoops.”

Unfortunately, Phylum mollusca isn’t known for its reasoning skills.

13H06 snails

The last several weeks have taught me why most aquarium keepers prefer janitors like the Cerith and the Nassarius, whose shells enable them to flip over and self-rescue when things go vertically wrong. (Nassarius–the snails pictured above–also have an entertaining habit of burying in the sand and bursting up at feeding time in a Night-of-the-Living-Dead-esque parade of slow motion scavengers, but I digress.)

Still, until the current residents die of natural causes (which don’t include stupidity, no matter how much I’d like to give them an object lesson in why the competent survive) I’ll stay on duty and on task.  Chief cook, bottle-washer, mollusk-flipper and snail saver, at your service.

2016 Update: In the years since this post originally ran, I’ve converted my reef’s clean-up crew to lean more heavily on miniature hermits, with only a few, carefully-chosen snails. In addition to my large abalone, Oscar:

16A19 Oscar

I have a pair of large Turbo snails (each one about half again the size of a golf ball):

13D20 aquatic turbo in air

and two dozen tiny bumblebee snails:

13B Bumblebee Snails

I haven’t had to flip a snail in almost two years, and the reef is cleaner than ever.

Like many other aspects of reef keeping, finding the perfect clean-up crew is less about “paint by numbers” and more about paying attention to the unique environment in the tank. Reef tanks vary widely in terms of detritus, population, and clean-up needs, and I’ve come to learn that here, as in so many parts of life, “perfection” is less about ideals and more about figuring out what actually works best in your situation.