Places to go,  Stuff I love,  Things that grow

Mysterious Mystery Shells along the Potomac

One of the things my partner and I love most is traveling to different parks in our State. We’re super lucky to live in Virginia for a multitude of reasons, but our parks and recreation are superb! They aren’t free, but they are well maintained, always have staff, and boast some pretty great campgrounds. In a future post I’ll write about this amazing program that they offer where you can collect enamel pins like the little cutie below.

While on one of our recent trips, we took the day and went galivanting a little ways north to a few state parks we hadn’t visited yet. Boy were we greeted with such a wonderful surprise!

We headed into Leesylvania State Park and picked one of the trails off the water side of the park. It was a relaxing trail that went through a swampy area and finally out to a beach along the Potomac.

Breakwater Store at Leesylvania State Park, pictured below.

While looking along the beach, my husband saw a snail shell floating lazily along the waves. We quickly realized there were a bunch of them, everywhere! I brushed the sand from a few and threw them into the plastic container that I always have in my bag for collecting mostly dead stuff, but sometimes fungi.

Closeup of the snail shell along the beach

After collecting a few and finishing our hike, we popped a little ways down the road to the Mason Neck State Park and Elizabeth Hartwell Wildlife Refuge

This pretty little park also runs along the edge of the Potomac and has some really nice, quiet trails. We chose another along the river since I’m a big fan of water. There were signs of beaver, the sounds of a bunch of water birds, and at the beach, more snails! There were more of the “mystery” snails along this coast than the one before. I threw a few more in my pack and we finished up the trail.

the view

Once I got home, I put the snail shells in some warm, soapy water and let them rest for a few days. I cleaned the water every few and replaced it since there were some residual smells on the shells. I only found one dead body inside of the shell, which was nice, but it left me wondering where the bodies all went?

The more I cleaned the snails, the more questions I had about them. Like:

  • What are they?
  • Where are they from?
  • Why were there so many (100’s) chilling on both beaches?
  • Are they food snails?
  • Why did I take so many home?
  • What was I going to do with these stinky things?
  • Who do you think you are?

I had so many questions it led me to dig a little deeper into what exactly these mystery snails are.

What are they?

They’re Chinese/Japanse (Bellamya chinensis, B. japonica) Mystery Snails. These cuties are also referred to as ‘trapdoor snails’ because they have a ‘trap door’ feature that allows the snail to seal itself up when needed. They’re named that because they have live babies that seem to just show up. The real mystery to me is that this water dwelling snails seems to lay it’s eggs on the top of the water instead of under. The snails can measure up to 3 inches long and have a shell with up to seven spirals!

Where are they from?

These sweet chonkers are native to the rice paddies of Asia where they were often eaten as food. In the 1890’s they were brought to California for food markets and eaten around the west coast. Over time though, they were traded and used for the freshwater aquarium market where they find themselves in lakes, ponds, and reservoir from CA to FL.

How do they live?

They’re gluttons for algae at the rivers edge and bottom so they seem to feed in that general area. They retreat to deep waters for the winter, where they hibernate in the mud. When water temperatures rise above 59 degrees, a female snail starts birthing quarter-inch-long juvenile snails — a hundred at a time! If pressured by predators, she can reproduce at twice the normal rate. Females live for about five years, males for three.

I’m not sure why there were so many along the beaches that day, but if I were guessing, I’d say the area is plentiful with resources and it was the right time of year. Many were floating along in the water and I’m sure had it been later, likely would have been snatched up. I think we may have just been lucky.

What I learned

Not only did I learn something about the ecosystem along the banks of the Potomac, but also the food routes of some of the earliest Americans. It’s a wonderful reminder of the diversity of our people. It should be noted that they do have the potential to carry a parasitic flatform, but no human transmissions have been known.

I’m unable to tell if the snails are actually invasive. There are native aquatic snails so seeing how they match up in the environment is a tough one. They were known to show around the Chesapeake Bay around 1960, so it may just be too early to tell.

I did clean and polish a good few of these beauties. My husband found a great way to jazz them up with borax crystals. I’ll put together some instructions and pics and post to the blog soon.

Borax Crystal Snails!

Until next time, stay smol. XOXO