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Otto: Natural wonders right outside our doors

Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 9:57 a.m. CDT

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Niagara Falls. Devil’s Tower. Mammoth Cave. Old Faithful.

These natural wonders of the United States are so famous, they hardly need explanation. They’re big. They’re unique. They’re really, really old. And each year people flock by the millions to see them.

Then there are those natural wonders that are a little less illustrious. Like, for instance, the little critters I found stuck to my garage doors this past Tuesday.

I was sanding the wooden doors in preparation for their annual coat of spar varnish when I spotted, at the corners of two different panels, what appeared to be little pebbles. Figuring them for bits of eroding concrete that had splashed up after our last rain (ah, the joys of home ownership!) I moved to brush them out of the way, lest the palm sander grind them and gouge the much-weathered wood even more.

But something about the shape of these little bits made me stop, turn off the sander, fetch my glasses, and take a closer look.

Far from random concrete fragments, the teensy specks – the largest of which measured maybe a quarter of an inch – turned out to be ... terrestrial snail shells.

Say whaaa ...?!

As a retired (some would say reformed) river rat, I’m well acquainted with our area’s aquatic snail species. Without too much trouble, I can tell which ones are lunged and which are gilled, which ones are native and which are not.

But, I swear on a stack of field guides, I had no idea we had terrestrial snails in Kane County.

Now their cousins, the slugs, yes. Who hasn’t seen their work, whether it’s the telltale holes they leave in hosta leaves or their glistening slime trails that traverse wood-chipped paths and even sidewalks.

But bona fide snails, with shells, on land? I honestly thought such creatures were to be found only in far-off locales, like rainforests, or maybe the Smoky Mountains.

Since none of my reference books make any more than a passing mention of terrestrial snails, I turned to my good friend Google to learn a little more.

Actually, a lot more.

It turns out, there are 124 species of land snails and slugs in Illinois alone. Even better, only a few are nonnative; the rest have been living in our fair state for thousands, and in some cases, millions of years.

Another great discovery – many of these species have really neat common names. While scientific names are intriguing, helpful and universal, an animal’s common name can be useful too. It can give clues about who coined it, or what the critter’s most predominant features are. Plus, as is the case with freshwater mussels and other lesser-appreciated taxa, the common names of land snails are just plain fun: Roger’s snaggletooth. Bronze pinecone. Honey vertigo.

Then there’s the one I think I found: the glossy pillar.

Also known as Cochlicopa lubrica, these tiny snails can be found in a wide range of habitats. Although they prefer humid environments, like those found under rocks, they can pop up in some strange places. One mollusk researcher said he’d spotted them “aestivating on our garage door.” A ha! Perhaps a species trait?

One other interesting characteristic of these small snails, the one perhaps responsible for their species name, is that they continuously clean their shells with their radula (a raspy structure I’d love to say is like a tongue, but isn’t) in order to keep them nice and glossy. The ones I found on my garage, though no longer living, were shiny indeed.

This odyssey of snail identification via Google led me to another fantastic find, an on-line version of the Fieldbook of Illinois Land Snails by Frank Collins Baker. Published in 1939, this little gem contains a lot of great background information on land snails as well as keys for identifying families, genera and species. What more could an amateur malacologist ask for?

I know I won’t be traveling to Devil’s Tower or Old Faithful this year; you might not be either. But you know what? It’s OK. We’ve got natural wonders right outside our doors.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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