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Snail mail for Radio 4

Helen Scales slows down to track snails at the Botanic Garden for Inside Science, to be broadcast at 4.30pm on Radio 4 this Thursday 9 October, 2014
In September a group of more than 100 malacologists - experts who study slugs, snails and other varieties of mollusc - descended on the Botanic Garden. They were in Cambridge for the 7th Congress of European Malacological Societies and after three days of lectures, were all keen to get into the open air and find some molluscs.

The afternoon was a chance for experts to explore the surprising range of slugs and snails that inhabit the Garden. More than 40 species have been recorded thanks in part to the variety of different habitats maintained in the 40-acre landscape, ranging from grasslands to woodlands and ponds. As Dr Richard Preece from the University's Department of Zoology and convenor of the Congress remarked, 'The Botanic Garden with its varied landscape of woodland, rockeries and water-bodies, provides a rich and diverse habitat for molluscs, although presumably they are not welcomed quite so enthusiastically by the gardeners themselves!'.

I was astonished so see lots of very tiny "micro snails", that are just a couple of millimetres across when fully grown. I would have almost certainly missed these Pyramidula pusilla specimens if I hadn't been helped out by expert eyes.

We found some of the more unusual of the Garden's mollusc specimens including tiny snails which hide in the alpine rockery of the Limestone Rock Garden abutting the Lake; they were introduced when the carboniferous blocks were brought in 50 years ago and are found no-where else in the county. Another strange mollusc is a slug with a shell (not a snail!) that is known to inhabit some of the flower beds but sadly, the weather has been too dry lately to leave a trace of these rare creatures.

Inside the Glasshouse Range we encountered a non-native snail species with an itchy foot that has made its way to Cambridge from the tropics! These hitched a ride among the soil of imported tropical plants and have narrow, spiralling shells (around 1-2cm) that are partly transparent, revealing a clutch of eggs brooding inside. There is no risk of these snails escaping into the wild because they only survive in the warm conditions inside the hothouses.

Dr Richard Preece was also thrilled to find a species with a particular resonance for Cambridge: 'Amongst the freshwater species, it was interesting to note the occurrence of the tiny bivalve Pisidium henslowanum, close to Henslow’s Walk, named after J.S. Henslow, Darwin’s mentor and the founder of the Botanic Garden.'

My report for Radio 4's Inside Science will be broadcast first on Thursday 9 October 2014 at 4.30pm and will be available shortly afterwards on i-player via the link to the left.
Publication Date
08/10/2014