LAZURASNAIL: What happened to the British Museum's revenant mollusc?
July 1, 2015 10:04 AM   Subscribe

In the mid-1800s, a snail spent years glued to a specimen card in the British Museum before scientists realized it was still alive. What became of this snail? Help me solve a scientific History Mystery, AskMe!

Here's the information I've collected so far.

The essay "Seven-Year Sleepers" by Canadian writer Grant Allan describes this charming snail tale:
A certain famous historical desert snail was brought from Egypt to England as a conchological specimen in the year 1846. This particular mollusk (the only one of his race, probably, who ever attained to individual distinction), at the time of his arrival in London, was really alive and vigorous; but as the authorities of the British Museum, to whose tender care he was consigned, were ignorant of this important fact in his economy, he was gummed, mouth downward, on to a piece of cardboard, and duly labelled and dated with scientific accuracy, 'Helix desertorum, March 25, 1846.' Being a snail of a retiring and contented disposition, however, accustomed to long droughts and corresponding naps in his native sand-wastes, our mollusk thereupon simply curled himself up into the topmost recesses of his own whorls, and went placidly to sleep in perfect contentment for an unlimited period. Every conchologist takes it for granted, of course, that the shells which he receives from foreign parts have had their inhabitants properly boiled and extracted before being exported; for it is only the mere outer shell or skeleton of the animal that we preserve in our cabinets, leaving the actual flesh and muscles of the creature himself to wither unobserved upon its native shores. At the British Museum the desert snail might have snoozed away his inglorious existence unsuspected, but for a happy accident which attracted public attention to his remarkable case in a most extraordinary manner. On March 7, 1850, nearly four years later, it was casually observed that the card on which he reposed was slightly discoloured; and this discovery led to the suspicion that perhaps a living animal might be temporarily immured within that papery tomb. The Museum authorities accordingly ordered our friend a warm bath (who shall say hereafter that science is unfeeling!), upon which the grateful snail, waking up at the touch of the familiar moisture, put his head cautiously out of his shell, walked up to the top of the basin, and began to take a cursory survey of British institutions with his four eye-bearing tentacles. So strange a recovery from a long torpid condition, only equalled by that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, deserved an exceptional amount of scientific recognition. The desert snail at once awoke and found himself famous. Nay, he actually sat for his portrait to an eminent zoological artist, Mr. [A.N.] Waterhouse; and a woodcut from the sketch thus procured, with a history of his life and adventures, may be found even unto this day in Dr. [S.P.] Woodward's 'Manual of the Mollusca,' to witness if I lie.
And sure enough, if you check A Manual of the Mollusca, there is Waterhouse's drawing of the snail! You can even download it as clip art. Here's the drawing's footnote: "Helix desertorum. Forskal. From a living specimen in the British Museum, March, 1850." And the text gives us this description:
The most interesting example of resuscitation occurred to a specimen of the Desert snail, from Egypt, chronicled by Dr Baird. This individual was fixed to a tablet in the British Museum, on the 25th of March, 1846; and on March 7th, 1850, it was observed that he must have come out of his shell in the interval (as the paper had been discoloured, apparently in his attempt to get away); but finding escape impossible, had again retired, closing his aperture with the usual glistening film; this led to his immersion in tepid water, and marvellous recovery. He is now (March 13th, 1850) alive and flourishing, and has sat for his portrait.
A November 1888 issue of the journal All the Year Round also mentions the snail: "a desert-snail from Egypt fixed to a tablet in the British Museum, twenty-fifty March, 1846, being immersed in tepid water, marvellously but completely recovered after an interval of four years."

The snail even gets a shout-out in popular book (in terms of snail book popularity) The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey.

And yet no one mentions the fate of this singular snail! Here are my questions:
  • Was this a real incident with a real snail at the British Museum? If it is was, does the Museum still possess the Helix desertorum snail in its archives, or the snail's shell, if the snail is no longer living?
  • Is this manner of dormancy and revival typical behavior for a snail of this type, or was this an unusually hardy snail? Could the Museum at the time have been mistaken in how long the snail had been dormant without resources?
  • Is there any other information as to the fame and ultimate fate of the snail?
Digging through the Museum's online collection of snails has brought me few promising leads. An email to the Museum's Department of Conservation and Scientific Research went unanswered, and I hesitate to pester them unduly over a single snail. And so I turn to you, Metafilter!

Bonus semi-related trivia: While google-researching this snail, I discovered that the Guinness World Records official website has seemingly plagiarized a paragraph from the 1998 book The Science of Aliens by Clifford Pickover.
posted by nicebookrack to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What was called the British Museum then split up after 1860 with all the natural history stuff going to the Natural History Museum. So you might try them.
posted by vacapinta at 11:25 AM on July 1, 2015

Best answer: You won't find any records for natural history specimens at the current British Museum. The natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington from 1881 to 1883; they were then referred to as the "British Museum (Natural History)." In 1963 this museum was made independent of the BM but kept the old name until 1989, when it changed its name to the Natural History Museum.

If you search the NHM's collections for Helix desertorum, you'll find fourteen specimens, but the oldest is from 1858. I'm not sure, though, how well catalogued the collection was before Richard Owen was appointed superintendent of the natural history collection in 1856.

Apparently it could be seen in the shell galleries in 1908.

BTW, while looking for this I turned up a story of another snail that survived six years in a specimen box.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:25 AM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: According to the webpage of one of the Natural History Museum's scientists, it's definitely dead now and part of the collection:
Jon enjoys the stories behind the collections, such as a desert snail, Eremina desertorum, displayed in the Museum in 1846 that was found actually to still be alive four years later. It had entered a hibernation-like state, but when exposed to water, emerged from its shell and lived for another two years. It's is now back in the collections as a confirmed deceased specimen.
posted by pines at 11:28 AM on July 1, 2015 [18 favorites]

Best answer: The California Academy of Sciences Institute for Biodiversity Science & Sustainability has a guide to the land snails of Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar (Wikipedia), with the following elaboration on this story:
167 Q - How tenacious are snails to life?

A - Land snails have been known to exhibit, under unusual conditions, remarkable tenacity of life. The most famous story took place at the British Museum when two snail were received on the 25th March 1846. The two specimens of Helix desertorum had been collected in Egypt some time previously. They were fixed upon tablets and placed in the collection of the museum. There they remained glued to the tablet until about 15th March 1850 when examining some shells in the same case a recently formed epiphragm was noticed over the mouth of one of the snails. On removing the snails from the tablet and placing them in tepid water, one of them came out of its shell. The next day it ate a cabbage leaf. A month or two afterwards it began repairing the lip of its shell which was broken when it was first affixed to the tablet.
As for the final lifespan of the celebrity Helix desertorum, there is a bit more information in Guide to the Mollusca exhibited in the Zoological Department, British Museum (Natural History) [Prepared by G.C. Robson] by British Museum (Natural History). Dept. of Zoology; Robson, Guy Coburn, published 1923:
A specimen of Helix desertorum, the common Desert Snail of Egypt, was fixed on a tablet in March 1846 and was found to be alive in March 1850, having passed four years in a museum case without any food or moisture. It became torpid in October 1851 and was found to be dead in May 1852.
The text goes on to talk of the extreme temperature tolerances of Mollusca, but nothing more on the storied Helix desertorum.

From this (archived) snail fancier's webpage, it looks like Eremina desertorum may be the modern or disputed name for these snails, Wikipedia indirectly backs this notion, as the page on Helix (gastropod) includes no "desertorum," but in the lists of non-marine molluscs of Egypt and Israel, referenced in 1882 in this list of figures as Helix (Eremina) desertorum.

Slow-to-post update: Natural History Museum search for Eremina desertorum gets four hits, but the earliest is 1938.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:32 AM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: This snail is even more famous than I thought!

Could there be any photographs of the snail shell, if the shell was not kept? Would the snail have been put on display until its demise, or would they keep it in a specimen drawer and add cabbage leaves as necessary? Is 6-ish years a normal snail lifespan, or did its long nap shorten its life? Does the Natural History Museum have a snail exhibit?

I am slightly disappointed that England had a celebrity snail and it seems not one scientist decided to name it.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:30 PM on July 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: A captive land snail can live between 10 and 15 years, up to 25 years on the high end. That same Wikipedia section states that Helix snails normally live 2-3 years, so by going dormant in a safe environment, its life was probably extended significantly, even if it was a rather quiet life.

You could probably ask Jon Ablett, curator of the terrestrial and freshwater Mollusca collections for museum-specific details, as he's the one who pines cited Jon's profile as having specific information on the desert snail.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:44 PM on July 1, 2015

Best answer: I second filthy light thief's suggestion to contact Mr. Ablett. I find it hard to believe the museum would have deliberately deaccessioned such a famous snail, but it might have been lost or stolen.

I turned up a contemporary account that notes that the snail was kept in an 18-inch-tall jar and fed with cabbage leaves. It doesn't say where it was kept, but my guess would be that it was in an office or lab, not in a public gallery. But I'm not sure.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:25 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: BTW, William Baird's original published account from 1850 is online, in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. In an 1857 work for students, Baird wrote that the snail was in his possession during its revived lifetime; he doesn't say whether that was at his home or at the museum.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:02 PM on July 1, 2015

Response by poster: I have emailed Jon Ablett and also pointed him toward this thread, and I will pass along any reply I receive. Thanks, y'all!
posted by nicebookrack at 5:56 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: FYI, I have just figured out that the artist who drew the celebrity snail from life was a woman, "Miss A. N. Woodhouse of Marlborough House," with only makes her snail portrait more interesting!
posted by nicebookrack at 10:49 PM on July 1, 2015

OK, I have nothing to add here, but this is fascinating and I think you should make an FPP of it on the blue.
posted by number9dream at 11:37 PM on July 1, 2015 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: I have a reply! And snail photos!! I will post them once I get permission to post and can get to a computer to upload them.
posted by nicebookrack at 6:00 AM on July 2, 2015 [23 favorites]

This is so exciting! Who knew that a snail who (I'm choosing who, not which, by the way - by this point I think we can all agree the plucky little snail is our friend, albeit posthumously) died 163 years ago could be so engaging?
posted by penguin pie at 3:56 PM on July 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Very well, I vote the name "Winston."

Somehow seems appropriate for an adopted Britisher.
posted by SlyBevel at 5:44 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:16 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: HERE BE SNAIL PHOTOS!
posted by nicebookrack at 6:42 PM on July 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

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