Wednesday May 17, 2017

Jeremy the snail still lonely after potential suitors only have eyestalks for each other

Jeremy the snail still hasn't found a mate, but is now a proud uncle (or aunt) to 170 itty bitty baby snails.

Jeremy the snail still hasn't found a mate, but is now a proud uncle (or aunt) to 170 itty bitty baby snails. (Angus Davison/University of Nottingham)

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Jeremy the snail remains a bachelor after efforts by the University of Nottingham to find the genetically rare gastropod a compatible mate backfired.

After a global appeal for other rare snails for Jeremy to mate with, the university found two possible matches, but they "have gone and reproduced with each other, rather, and ignored Jeremy," Angus Davison, the evolutionary geneticist who studies Jeremy, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

"Unfortunately, kind of in the same way that you might have someone you're interested in romantically, you introduce them to your best friend, and of course that person goes off with your best friend."

baby snails

Two rare snails brought to Nottingham to mate with Jeremy instead mated with each other. These are a few of their offspring. (Angus Davison/University of Nottingham)

As It Happens first reported on Jeremy in October 2016, when researchers at the university's life sciences lab explained the rare genetic disorder that makes Jeremy's chances of finding a mate extremely unlikely.

Unlike most garden snails, the spirals on Jeremy's shell run counterclockwise. That makes it impossible for Jeremy to copulate with a clockwise snail, because "essentially, their bits are in the wrong position," Davison said at the time.

Jeremy on the right

Jeremy the snail, right, has a counterclockwise shell that makes it hard to find a compatible mate. (Angus Davison/University of Nottingham)

It seemed Jeremy was doomed to a life of solitude, until British snail enthusiast Jade Melton found another counterclockwise snail in her garden, named it Lefty and introduced it to Jeremy.

Things were going well at first. Melton told As It Happens in November the pair were actively "flirting."

"They just touch each other gently with their tentacles, their eyestalks, and they will kind of caress each other for a while," she said.

But the two never consummated their relationship because the timing just wasn't right, Davison said.

"They'd been experiencing a day-night cycle of November, so quite a lot of dark and not so much light," Davison said. "And if you're a snail, normally that's the kind of thing you'd be thinking, 'Hang on, it's going to get cold soon. I ought to go into hibernation and not be reproducing.'"

Angus Davison University of Nottingham

Angus Davison holds up Jeremy and Lefty, who were brought together to mate but never sealed the deal. (Hannah Jackson)

Then came along Tomeu.

A Spanish snail farmer found Tomeu among his stock, spared it the grisly fate of becoming an expensive meal and shipped it off to Nottingham, where it found love — with Lefty.

That's bad news for Jeremy, but good news for science.

"As a scientist involved more with this, the fourth individual, it's great anyway, because we can still do the science. It doesn't matter if Jeremy doesn't reproduce. We've got two other fantastic examples."

snails mating

Lefty and Tomeau mated, leaving Jeremy out in the cold. (Angus Davison/University of Nottingham)

Lefty and Tomeu have produced 170 babies since April — all of which are right-coiled.

"In this case, two lefts have made a right," Davison said. 

"Probably the mother is what's called heterozygote. She has two versions of the gene, and the one that makes you coil right is probably the dominant one. So we're gonna have to see this through to actually breed further generations of snails to really pin down what it is about them, if the condition is inherited."

Tomeau babies

The right-coiled baby snails hitch a ride on Tomeu's left-coiled shell. (Angus Davison/University of Nottingham)

Jeremy, meanwhile, appears unfazed, taking on the role of proud uncle — or aunt, as snails are hermaphrodites.

The lab is still looking for more left-coiled snails, and Davison asks anyone who spots one to snap a picture and email it to him.

"Just find three or four or five snails, line them up in the same direction, and if all the coils go the same way, then almost certainly you must have the common kind. But if you line them up and, hang on, one of them looks a bit odd, then maybe you've got the one very rare kind," he said.

"And no tricks please!"