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A Happy Ending For 'Jeremy' the Snail Whose Genitals Are In the Wrong Place

UK residents scoured their gardens to find a special mate for this asymmetrical snail.

by Sarah Emerson
Nov 8 2016, 6:26pm

Garden snail. Image: Flickr/Elias Gayles

Jeremy is a garden snail. He's also a lefty, or "sinistral mutant," which means that unlike other members of his species, Jeremy's shell spirals in a counterclockwise direction. Unfortunately for Jeremy, this also means that his genitals are on the wrong side, making the act of mating a physical impossibility.

But I wouldn't be telling you this story if that's where Jeremy's tale sadly ended. You see, Jeremy has just found not one, but two, mates who are just like him.

The two have displayed "flirting of the snail kind," which the amateur biologist described as a sort of mutual slithering.

Two snail suitors in Ipswich, England, and Mallorca, Spain, also sinistral mutants, will soon have the chance to copulate with Jeremy. One of these mates, called "Lefty" by Jade Melton, the woman who discovered "her," is already sharing a tank with Jeremy. According to Melton, the two have displayed "flirting of the snail kind," which the amateur biologist described as a sort of mutual slithering.

"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," Angus Davison, an associate professor of life sciences at the University of Nottingham in England, said in a statement last month.

"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. It is very rare. It might even be one in a million."

Sinistral shell form (exceptional) and dextral shell form (common). Image: Wikipedia/Didier Descouens

After a retired scientist first discovered Jeremy in a compost heap in South West London, he sent word to Davison, thinking the snail's anatomical anomaly might be of some interest to the biologist.

Earlier this year, Davison and several colleagues found a particular gene in snails that determines whether their shells will spiral clockwise or counterclockwise. Their study, published in Current Biology, explained how a gene in charge of making the protein "formin" could reverse the cell scaffolding of a snail's shell, causing a symmetry mutation like Jeremy's.

Further investigation into this gene could reveal how the internal organs of other animals, including humans, are uniquely organized. "While animals tend to be outwardly symmetrical in appearance, they are almost all asymmetrical inside. It is has not been clear if asymmetry is an ancient feature, or something that has evolved several times," Davison said of the study.

When Davison received word of poor Jeremy, he was excited about the genetic prospects of offspring created by two lefty snails. With no time to spare, the biologist started a citizen science campaign, asking residents of all ages to search their gardens, sidewalks, and doorsteps for suitable mates for Jeremy.

It's important to note that while Jeremy has been dubbed a "he" (and his mate, Lefty, a "she"), most snails are hermaphroditic. Garden snails, in particular, are capable of asexual reproduction, which means they're able to reproduce without another mate, but according to Davison, still prefer to get it on with another individual, if possible.

Garden snails mating. Image: Wikipedia/Linda Tanner

The actual act of snail sex is… complicated. Because they mate face-to-face, it's necessary for their genitals to mirror each other. After a courtship period, which involves a lot of caressing of tentacles, the two will pierce each other with calcium carbonate spears known as "love darts" that contain a fertility-inducing hormone. While entwined with the help of these spears, the snails will mate and exchange sperm and egg cells. This whole process can take up to twelve hours, and eggs will generally hatch after a few weeks.

As for Jeremy and his tiny harem, so far, so good. Melton and Davison are hopeful that he and Lefty will eventually reproduce. After the pairing is over, Jeremy will then be introduced to his second mate who has been named "Tomeau."

"With snails, everything is slow," Melton said. "Jeremy had quite a lot to eat last night so hopefully he will have some energy and something will happen over the next couple of nights."