The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An unusual snail named Jeremy finally found a mate. Now he is stuck in a love triangle.

Jeremy the snail is pictured. (Courtesy of Angus Davison.)
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About six months ago, it seemed as though Jeremy the lonely snail had finally found his mate.

Unlike most snails, Jeremy is a “lefty”— his shell spirals counterclockwise and his sex organs are on the left side of his head. Most snails have their organs are on the right side. Since snails mate facing each other, a lefty will never match up with a righty.

So this genetic mutation makes it impossible for the snail to mate with most of his counterparts.

It would be a “one in a million find,” said Angus Davison from the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences in England. But he was determined to set Jeremy up with a snail just like him. He began a worldwide search, asking people everywhere to look for “lefty” snails that might stand a chance at mating with Jeremy, he told The Washington Post.

And just weeks later, after drawing international attention, Jeremy’s love story appeared to reach a fairytale ending. Not one, but two left-coiling mates came forward: “Lefty,” a snail owned by a collector in England, and “Tomeu,” a snail rescued at a restaurant while awaiting a fate as a menu item.

As winter hibernation came to a close, Davison hoped the heat would turn up for Jeremy and one of his two possible mates.

“But in a tragic twist, Jeremy has been left shellshocked after being given the cold shoulder by both of his suitors,” Davison said.

That’s right, Jeremy was thrust into a love triangle. The other two snails took a liking to each other, leaving Jeremy a bachelor once more. Lefty and Tomeu began copulating, and now have produced about 170 eggs between them, Davison announced Wednesday.

“We liken it to when you’re interested in someone romantically and you end up introducing that person to your best friend,” Davison said. This first batch of eggs to hatch were “fathered” by Lefty and laid by Tomeu in April. (Snails are hermaphrodites so they can take on the role of either mother or father.) Two more batches of eggs — another laid by Tomeu and one laid by Lefty and fathered by Tomeu — will soon be hatching.

While the outcome is less than ideal for Jeremy — the hatched eggs mark a significant milestone for Davison and his research. This second generation will allow Davison to study the genetics of left-swirling snails with the hope that these rare snails might offer insight into body asymmetry in other animals, including humans.

And what became clear in this new generation was that “two lefts clearly make a right,” Davison said. Each of the babies hatched so far have developed with right-coiling shells. This might be because the “mother” carries both the dominant and recessive versions of the genes that determine shell-coiling direction, and only the mother’s genes determine the direction of the twist of the shell.

“It is far more likely that we will get to see left-coiling babies produced in the next generation or even the generation after that,” Davison said.

Last year, Davison and his colleagues at universities in Edinburgh, Germany and the United States revealed they had discovered a gene that determines whether a snail’s shell twists in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. The findings were published in the journal Current Biology. 

The same gene also affects body asymmetry in other animals — including humans. Therefore, researching these snails could provide a deeper understanding of how organs are placed in the body and why this process can sometimes go wrong, Davison said.

“I’ve now got a multigenerational commitment to raising them,” Davison said about the newly hatched snails. After all, Jeremy and the other snails have reached a growing following in British news and on social media.

Jeremy has his own Twitter account and his story has even inspired one fan to have a tattoo of the “shellebrity” snail.

Jeremy is an older adult than the other two snails. When the snail seemed unlikely to mate, Davison worried Jeremy’s “days could be numbered.” But, Davison said, “Jeremy has since perked up.”

While Lefty has returned home to its owner, Davison is still optimistic that Jeremy might mate with Tomeu. He has even found some evidence of the two snails trying to mate — some flirting, perhaps.

Davison is holding out hope, in part because he feels a responsibility to find the snail his long-awaited romance.

“Everybody else is rooting for Jeremy too,” Davison said.

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