This Snail Wrangler Will Make You Love Snails

About 95 percent of land snails are smaller than a lentil — or a ladybug. (Photo: Courtesy Marla Coppolino)

If we're lucky, we find a passion in life — something that endlessly interests us and about which we care about deeply. Marla Coppolino is such a fortuitous person: Snails are her passion.

It started early — she was just 7 years old when she found tiny land snails in the backyard of her New Jersey home. "Some of them were not much bigger than a pin head — they were teeny-tiny. I was drawn in by their secretive little world," says Coppolino, now a research associate for the Delaware Museum of Natural History and a "Snail Wrangler" (a.k.a. a malacologist, a scientist who studies mollusks).

In college, Coppolino began in a pre-vet program, but eventually switched out and got a bachelor of science in biology when she wasn't spending much time studying her favorite animals.

"My joke is that I realized that they don’t take snails to the vet," Coppolino says of why she left the veterinary program. After college, she worked as a research scientist studying another mollusk — invasive zebra mussels in Tennessee — but was still frustrated that she wasn't working with snails.

Malecologist Marla Coppolino takes interested people on "snail walks" to learn about these misunderstood animals.
Malacologist Marla Coppolino takes interested people on 'snail walks' to learn about these misunderstood animals. (Photo: Courtesy Marla Coppolino)

She got a little closer when she worked in the collections department of the American Museum of Natural History, where she was in charge of communicating with scientists and researchers about the museums's mollusk collection.

Now, Coppolino is focused on educating people about the ecological importance of snails — and she's working on the book she wishes she had when she was younger. "I always looked up snails at bookstores and libraries but there weren’t any good books on them. I said back then, 'when I grow up I’m going to write one,' so now that's one of my projects," she says.

Another is making some very unique art featuring snails, including her super-creative snail dioramas in the video above and "Need a Corkscrew" below. She calls this work "fun and funny" — for a purpose. "I think of using snails in photography as a way to lure a person in by something beautiful or funny, and then hopefully get them to ask questions and learn more about the snails – it's a hook," she says. She also does fine art and has long created biological illustrations of snails, slugs and other creatures.

A Cepaea nemoralis snail in a diorama looking like the snail is pouring champagne.
This is a Cepaea nemoralis, or grove snail, which is an introduced species in the U.S., 'though not terribly invasive,' says Coppolino. 'I use them as photography subjects with miniatures because they are such hams,' she says. (Photo: Courtesy Marla Coppolino)

All of this — the art, the book, the videos and the speaking she regularly does — is in service of her goal to promote ecological literacy through understanding snails. "Snails are misunderstood animals," says Coppolino. That's often because many people don't make the distinction between native and invasive species. It's the latter that plague gardeners. The most common question Coppolino gets during her presentations is how to kill snails — but native snails are incredibly important and "want nothing to do with your vegetable garden," she says.

"Land snails eat low on the food web, really low," Coppolino explains. "Native snails and slugs eat decaying vegetation and fungi (mushrooms and lichens), so they are clean-up crews of the environment."

The other important thing they do is feed other animals — and they don't just serve as another protein source. Slugs ("Slugs are snails that evolved," she explains) and snails absorb calcium, magnesium, and other vital nutrients from the decaying vegetation they ingest, passing those onto whoever eats them in concentrated quantities.

"There are lots of examples of animals that wouldn’t survive if not for snails," says Coppolino — including some songbirds. "Many thrush species rely on snails — in particular the wood thrush — if the female wood thrush doesn’t consume enough snails, she won't be able to lay viable eggs."

A tiny snail makes it's way across a leaf.
Because snails are so small, many people don't even realize how many tiny land snails are right in their own backyards. (Photo: Courtesy Marla Coppolino)

Fireflies are another species dependent on snails — in fact, there are certain species of larval fireflies that consume only snails. "So I always tell people, if you love fireflies you also love your snails," says Coppolino. She says that there are lot of beetles that consume snails exclusively. "Frogs, toads and salamanders, snakes, lizards and turtles all consume snails and slugs. Chipmunks love snails."

A Phylomycus togatus slug in a group of mushrooms.
This Phylomycus togatus slug beautifully illustrates how important these animals are to the process of decay. (Photo: Courtesy Marla Coppolino)

"There is even evidence that some snails and slugs act as pollinators for plants. One of the better known examples is slugs pollinating wild ginger blossoms, because they go from flower to flower, much like a bee, and the pollen sticks to their mucus and gets deposited on different flowers, fertilizing them," says Coppolino.

"I've had a really circuitous path in life," says Coppolino. You can keep up with her artistic and educational projects on her website, The Snail Wrangler, and on her Twitter and Facebook pages.