Stand back! The snails are running

How do I say this delicately? Hmm. Here goes: I get a lot of … um … odd phone calls at work.

One time, I had a lady call and ask me what kind of critter had been prowling around behind her house the night before. Disclaimer: I wasn’t there. I had no idea. But after a bit of coaxing, she told me that the animal had made a very funny noise … and that she could replicate it.

She then cleared her voice and gave me a flawless grunt from a bull moose. “Urrph!” she bellowed. “Urrrrrrph!”

Case closed. No need for CSI. Detective (junior grade) Holyoke had it covered.

Many times, however, I don’t. Like on Monday, when a cheerful reader called with a story that he knew sounded a bit odd.

“Snails,” he said, in way of introduction. “I’ve come across this huge snail migration. They’re down in Hampden. All over Route 202. Right next to the industrial park.”

Around the office, we chuckled. Snails are, after all, slow. As slow as … well … snails. And the thought of a herd of the slimy little beasts legging (or snail-ing) it across a major highway was kinda funny.

Still, I was curious. The caller told me that he knew the call sounded like an April Fool’s joke, but assured me that the day before, he’d seen the migration in action. And he’d seen it before, in past years, at the same spot.

Snails dart across Route 202 in Hampden. OK. Maybe they weren't "darting."

Now, I don’t know much about snails, though I suppose I had a vague, suppressed knowledge that some snails are, indeed, terrestrial. (When you work at a newspaper that regularly writes about the ocean-dwelling species, like periwinkles, though, the word “snail,” invariably makes you think “where’s the water?”)

I had never seen what I started to think of as a “ground snail” (as opposed to a “sea snail.”)

The curious reader wanted to know what was going on. I had been elected to find out.

And as this publication’s outdoor editor, it made sense to provide the caller with the information he needed. I told him I’d get to the bottom of things. I told him that it was my number one priority. And since it was a slow Monday … it was.

Then I got ready. I slowly, deliberately, intently got in touch with my own “inner snail.” I strolled around the office, gathering up vital supplies for a snail-gathering mission. I grabbed a camera, a tape recorder (just in case the snails wanted to explain themselves), a plastic bag, and a cooler (just in case the snails wanted to take a ride to see a biologist, who could explain to me exactly what was going on).

Then I told my chuckling co-workers where I was going. And why.

Of course, since I was in snail mode, I was in no particular hurry. The offenders were, after all, snails. And since they’d been on Route 202 the day before, I figured, according to my rough understanding of snail locomotion, they they’d likely still be there. Maybe some of the speedier fellas — the Usain Bolts of the snail world — would have made it to their migration staging ground, but I was pretty sure I’d find a few slowpokes — the outdoor editors of the snail world, if you please — still slithering their way across the road.

Back at the office, the snail stampede commences. Honest. They stampeded.

Perhaps, I thought, if I was really lucky, they’d actually be in the breakdown lane, where I would be able to take a few photos without getting myself run over by an oil truck bound for Winterport. (I’m pretty sure my employer has a good insurance policy, but was also unsure whether I’d be covered if the big bosses found out I had been flattened while snail-rustling).

And off I went. To Hampden. To Route 202. To the snails. I hoped.

Sure enough, they were still there. And luckily enough, they were all in the breakdown lane. I did spy some suspiciously snail-like goo in the travel lanes, leading me to believe that some of the poor buggers hadn’t been quick enough to dodge the Winterport-bound oil trucks, but I wasn’t willing to scoop up the remains to get a proper ID.

Snails on the move. Slowly. But on the move. Instead, I focused on the puffing, panting (or so I imagined) slowpokes who had spent most of a day trying to get all the way across the breakdown lane.

There were more than a few, less than a full-fledged herd. I could easily count a hundred, but doubt a thousand were there. Intrigued, I plucked a few of the tired little devils off the pavement, placed them in my handy plastic bag, and transported them back to the office.

Why the office? Well, it’s simple: I’m a guy. Everybody else who works on my desk is a woman. And the last time I checked — back in fourth grade, I’ll admit — guys like to torment girls (or women) with creepy-crawly things.

Like a bag full of snails.

Alas, these snails were cute. We put down a piece of paper (so as not to snail up a perfectly good desk), and set them loose. They wiggled here. They wobbled there. A couple of them seemed to mate … although one of my co-workers, who shall remain nameless, insisted that one was simply “hitching a ride” because it was so tired after snailing its way across the highway for hours.

Then, after taking some photos, I left a message Jonathan Mays, an invertebrate biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Oops. Let me rephrase that: Jonathan himself is, in fact, a vertebrate. Darn those modifiers. He studies invertebrates. That’s an important distinction. And according to my DIF&W sources, Mays is their in-house snail expert.

Today, Mays returned my call. I wasn’t surprised at the delay: My call was a bit of a farce (as you may have already ascertained). And the snails, apparently, are running this time of year, which would seemingly make a snail expert as busy as … well … as a snail trying to run across Route 202.

“This is probably a species that is commonly called the amber snail,” Mays explained in a message.”They’re in the family Succineidae.”

All of which was really cool, but really, my main concern (which I hadn’t dared let Mays know in the message I left him) was this: Are we in any trouble here? Is this like, kinda, some sort of snail zombie apocalypse or something? Are they coming to get us? Should we take note of this migration, and lock our doors when the critters arrive at our homes, like in about four years?

No. Apparently not.

“They usually live near water — they’re terrestrial snails — but they like wet places,” Mays said. “And when we get big rains like this, they will disperse out. Sometimes they can occur in very high densities, which is probably what [the caller] was observing.”

That, too, was good to know.

And today, it’s nice to know that I’ve closed another case.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish on a (snail-)slow news day.




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John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.