Home sweet home.

Not all of us have one, but the majority of us yearn for one.

A place to lay our head. To call home. To hang up the champagne cork on a pink ribbon, to park a pot plant and a stereo, and eat chinese food. Home is where the heart is.

But what if one is a monocard: if, rather than the two robust pumps in one’s heart, there is only one? How small do you have to be, to have that yearning for more than just shelter: but Β to want familiarity, and a patch of your own? Can an amoeba have a sense of place?

One year ago, an inspired woman entered a competition.

Her name was Ruth Brookes, and she was a self-styled ‘reluctant snail murderer’.

Over the years she had found snails making meals out of the juicy produce in her garden in Devon. She used Β a variety of tried and tested methods to rid herself of these tenacious molluscs, and some of them had involved snailicide. And this discomfited Ruth considerably.

She reasoned that she could rid her garden of snails by putting them in a bucket and taking them far, far away. But how far away, she wondered, was enough?

And then began an adventure of such huge proportions it quite dwarfed its small, unassuming slimy subject.

Ruth entered a BBC competition run by BBC Radio 4’s Material World science magazine programme. The competition, dubbed ‘So You Want To Be A Scientist’, asked listeners to design an experiment, and last September Ruth was one of four finalists to present their ideas at the British Science Festival in Birmingham.

Reader, she won it.

And then began the fun. She gave the snails a terrarium as a back garden pad: and then took them out and released them at various distances on nearby wasteland.

And with uncommon regularity, the snails would turn up back at the garden to meet their mates.

She was mentored in this exercise by quantitive ecologist Dr Dave Hodgson, a tousel-haired rugged young man who saw immediately the way this was going.

And the rest of Britain was invited to join the experiment in a delicious piece of footage presented by the good snail doctor himself.

“We have verified the snails come home,” he told Material World presenter Quentin Cooper in a programme aired yesterday, “but do they go straight home …or are they schmoozing around in their environment, recognising home when they find it?”

Now Exeter undergraduate Claire Young is on the case. She’s a dedicated snail tracker: not with state-of-the-art satnav, but using trusty metal detectors.

Of course, you’ve got to fix the metal to the snail first.

Claire tried pennies, but they made the snails topple over as they were scaling the heights of their home pots.

She tried tin, but it was too bulky for the snails to get through those little crevices they love so dearly.

In the end it was copper which was light and malleable enough to carry an identification number. She took two populations of snails, 30 metres apart, and watched them for four hours.

This afternoon, as I made tuna fish bake for Felix in the kitchen, I listened spellbound as Claire took presenter Quentin snail detecting. There was the moment of tension as we wondered if she would find one of the snails in question:”He was in here earlier,” Claire muttered, “I hope he hasn’t moved…”

And, hearts in mouths, the unpaid workforce of Britain paused over the dinner preparation, some of us cheering wildly when we heard the mechanical beep which signalled the proximity of an experimental snail.

It was snail 2F.

And snail 2F is helping, with his snaily colleagues, to build an extremely strong case for snails who do not simply loiter around hoping that home might materialise: but rather, who travel towards their chosen destination with ponderous focus.

Dr Hodgson told Quentin: “Many people are surprised that what is supposedly such a simple organism could have neurological or phisiological features that allow them to find home or identify home.

“If the evidence continues to be so overwhelmingly in favour of directed movement home, then the next phase is to start collaborating with some neurologists and physiologists to try to get down to the true biological mechanisms the snail uses.”

Homing pigeons, lobsters, they are all at it, he explained. They all make their way to pastures familiar. The cues are subtle: sometimes it’s the polarised light; sometimes it’s the scent.

And no-one knows what the snail takes as his cue to go home.

So that’s the next step of this singular line of inquiry.

Just what tells the snail where the sofa, and the flat screen TV, and his large single slipper are waiting for him?


41 thoughts on “Home sweet home.

  1. Oh Kate! How I have missed reading you on a regular basis! I have missed reading MOST of my loyal faithful readers/commenters. I’m so honored to know that they have all stayed with me through thick and thin!

    When i read this post, I just cried with laughter, amazement, and awe! What a terrific lady – and I haven’t even watched the video yet – but I definitely will!

    Now I last I understand – home is not only where the heart is – home is where the slime is! Or, to put it another way: Anywhere I cart my shell is home. . .

    Thank you – even at 1:50 a.m. – for this wonderful start to my day – and a guaranteed forward to several of my friends!

    1. Hi Paula, how lovely to hear from you…does this mean we might expect you back from your blogatical? Love the new avatar, and very glad you enjoyed the post. Home is where the slime is. I must remember that πŸ™‚

  2. I so enjoyed this, Kate. I have heard it postulated that some animals’ homing instinct worked off the magnetic north pole. I am not sure, but I think it was in relation to birds’ migratory habits. I really think we have so very much to learn about our world… πŸ˜€

  3. We have a friend who studies these little hermaphrodites. He assures us that they are beautiful and come in all shades from purple down to yellow. H rather naughtily throws them over our hedges and walls, but we have long thought that they seem to find their way back again.

  4. Adult children have a propensity to come home too. Esp when father gets his social security check on the third Wednesday and his pension check on the last weekday of the month. I assure you they are a lot quicker than the snails.

  5. You beat me to it! If it hadn’t been my big day, I was going to blog about this very thing. Homing snails do beg the question, if they carry their homes on their backs, why don’t they just go around in circles?

    I rather like knowing that we listened to the same programme together πŸ™‚

    1. It is dinner prep listening for me, Linda πŸ˜€ I’m not surprised your fine-tuned sense of the absurd clocked the snails…it was that bit about sticking pennies on them….and the analogy or snails rolling home drunk….I guffawed….

  6. Kate, I couldn’t sleep last night and found this post in my inbox. Imagining these little creatures doggedly seeking the shelter and comfort of home calmed my thoughts. What a remarkable lady.

  7. Thanks for again establishing that the tale is in the teller. Well told.

    And . . . as Claire is my witness . . . I shall never eat escargot again. :mrgreen:

    You say: A place to lay our head. To call home. To hang up the champagne cork on a pink ribbon, to park a pot plant and a stereo, and eat chinese food. Home is where the heart is.

    Do you mean “pot plant” as in “marijuana plant”? Or “pot plant” as in a “plant in a pot” . . . no matter its species? :mrcool:

    1. I think this is a British thing, Nancy: a pot plant is what we call a plant which grows in a pot. Swiss cheese plant, spider plant, and so on. Pot plants might have been fun, but my idea of home was always some fog plant or other skulking in the corner.

    1. Hi Ariana! Thanks for reading them! The snails are priceless subjects. Who could as for better ones? (By the way, clicked on your link and it doesn’t get back to your blog – is it still around?)

  8. I knew it!

    My snails – and there are many – have been threatened with this eviction…. put ’em in a bucket and dot a splash of red nail varnish on ’em and take ’em down to the quarry. Then wait to see how many nail varnished snails come home. But I have never managed to get around to it!

    I’m off to listen to Quentin and find out more!

    1. Oh, Pseu, you are the perfect sort of person to carry out this experiment. If you do, please be sure to blog it: I shall be hanging on every word.
      Although your haikus are exquisite…

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