Scientists from the University of Nottingham have taken on the role of would-be matchmakers – for a lonely and ultra-rare “lefty” snail.
Common snail species have shells which spiral in a right-handed, clockwise direction – known as dextral – but the Nottingham snail is a sinistral, with a left-handed anti-clockwise spiralling shell.
One in a million
The snail’s unique qualities make it a one in a million find – but also impossible for it to mate with its more common counterparts.
Scientists have now turned to the public to help in their quest to finding the lonely mollusk, named Jeremy, a mate.
Associate professor and reader in evolutionary genetics in the university’s School of Life Sciences Angus Davison said: “This really is an exciting find.
“I have been studying snails for more than 20 years and I have never seen one of these before – we are very keen to study the snail’s genetics to find out whether this is a result of a developmental glitch or whether this is a genuine inherited genetic trait.”
However, for Jeremy, being special comes with its own set of problems.
In addition to its mirror image shell, the snail’s genitals are also on the opposite side, making it very difficult for the two types of snails to mate.
“Snails are hermaphrodites, meaning if they want to they can reproduce on their own, without the need for a mate,” said Dr Davison. “However, they don’t really like doing this and from our perspective, the genetic data from offspring of two lefty snails would be far richer and more valuable.”
Jeremy was found around a compost heap in Rayne’s Park, London by a retired scientist from the Natural History Museum, who spotted its unique traits.
Having heard about Dr Davison’s interest in snail genetics, he contacted the university before sending it on – by snail mail.
In research published in the journal Current Biology earier this year, Dr Davison and colleagues at universities in Edinburgh, Germany and the US revealed they had discovered a gene that determines whether a snail’s shell twists in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.
The same gene also affects body asymmetry in other animals – including humans – and research using these snails could offer the chance to develop our understanding of how organs are placed in the body and why this process can sometimes go wrong.
The dating game
Now the hunt is on for a second sinistral brown garden snail to mate with Jeremy.
Members of the public can get involved by searching hedgerows, borders and plant pots for this rare variety of the common snail.
“This is something everyone can get involved with and which you can easily do on your own doorstep – it is an example of citizen science at its best,” Dr Davison said.
There is a chance, because it is such a rare thing, anyone who can find and identify another of these sinistral snails may find themselves named as a contributor on any resulting research paper.