On Thursday, I clicked on a link that promised to show me a snail “playing” with a baby carrot. The video was nice, but I wanted to know more. After speaking with multiple snail specialists, I have inched toward the truth about “Snails Can’t Get Enough of Baby Carrot,” dear readers, and it’s either fun in a different way or a bit sad.
The video, which is clearly sped up to be more amusing, shows a snail on its back spinning a carrot around with its foot. It’s both fascinating and pretty metal, and I wondered if the snail was summoning its god through the powers of the carrot dance. Evidently, this snail was neither playing nor invoking a divine being. According to two snail experts, this snail was just trying to get its foot back on solid ground.
“This snail has fallen on its back (or, more likely, has been placed upside down) and is now frantically trying to right itself by crawling along a carrot that somebody has placed on its foot,” Menno Schilthuizen, an evolutionary biologist at the Netherlands’ Leiden University, told me in an email. “(Obviously, it is not aware that the carrot is not a solid, stationary object — so its efforts are in vain).” He also added that he doesn’t think that snails play.
“I think animals usually ‘play’ to hone social skills (if they play with each other) or dexterity (if they play with an object),” he said. “In a snail’s life, I think neither social behaviour nor object manipulation is important, so I would not expect play to have evolved in their behavioural repertoire. But I’m not a behavioural biologist, so I might be wrong.”
Mollusk expert Timothy A. Pearce, curator of collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, identified the snail in the video as belonging to the family Neritidae, though he wasn’t able to identify the genus or species off the top of his head. These are freshwater snails commonly found in aquariums. Pearce also said that he wouldn’t characterize what the snail is doing in the video as play.
“My guess is that the videographer turned the snail upside down and put the carrot on its foot, so the snail is trying to crawl, but the carrot keeps moving (like a treadmill),” he said. He added that typically when a snail lands on its back, its foot is flexible and stretchy enough to reach the ground, stick to it, and right itself. (A quick search of aquarium forums, it should be noted, uncovered several reports by snail owners of Neritidae getting stuck on their backs.) In this instance, Pearce believes the snail was trying to use the carrot as something for it to move on, but instead the carrot moved.
As is too often true in the world of online virality, this seemed to be a case where what appeared cute and joyful was tainted with a tale of torment. Two other experts, however, offered a second theory about the snail’s behavior.
“Obviously, the snail is not used to a carrot,” Adiël Klompmaker, a researcher at the University of California Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, told me in an email. Klompmaker didn’t believe the snail was necessarily using the carrot to right itself, however, but instead “simply feeling out this possible food source with its foot, which several snails with a large foot do with their prey.”
Mollusk researcher Jann E. Vendetti, assistant curator at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, suggested a similar explanation.
“I speculate that this snail is checking out the surface of this carrot for algae (its preferred food), and depending on how long that carrot has been in the aquarium, it might have some algae on it, so it is scraping it off the carrot,” Vendetti told me in an email. “If not, it is trying to find any algae that is on it (what it really wants to eat). (Think of it like it is licking the butter off of corn on the cob before eating the corn, or looking for the butter to lick off.) [It] eats the carrot as its second favorite kind of food.”
Whichever of these scenarios is more accurate, it seems pretty clear that this snail is not playing around—these little buddies may not even have the evolutionary motivation or capability to understand the concept of “play.” And if this snail is struggling to right itself, it’s probably not something you’d happen upon in nature. Schilthuizen said that unlike the level bottom of the aquarium, “the floor of a water body is usually more irregular.”
Fortunately, both Schilthuizen and Pearce said that they don’t believe that the snail was distressed. In the unlikely event that you do stumble upon a marine snail stuck on its back and spinning a carrot around, Pearce said that “if you were a compassionate person, you could flip it over onto its foot so it could go on with its day. But if you find it amusing to watch the snail crawling under a treadmill carrot, I think the snail would be fine with amusing you for a while.”