Snails in art and the art of snails
By George Wigmore, on 11 October 2012
Professor Steve Jones’ personality remains a significant draw for life sciences at UCL, with his excellent lectures well-known not only for their wit and subject matter, but also for their enduring popularity.
At this point, I must confess that I am a Professor Jones newby, so it was with much excitement that I headed down to join the queues outside the appropriately named Darwin Lecture Theatre to find out more about snails in art, and the art of these little molluscs.
From Matisse and Dali to the Dutch masters, snails are rich in symbolism and surprisingly common in art.
During the Renaissance, snails were seen as an image of the Virgin Birth, as people couldn’t comprehend how they could possibly reproduce with their thick calcium carbonate shell. As a result, they were often used as symbols of resurrection, purity and our own mortality.
But far from being having prosaic sex lives, snails reproduce in an extraordinary way. With most snails cross-fertilising hermaphrodites, in the words of Professor Jones, the dating process is more akin to “boy-girl meets girl-boy”.
Once snails have courted, they also fire ‘love darts’ at each other in a bid to influence the reproductive outcome. In an interesting homage to cupid, this calcium carbonate arrow is covered with a combination of mucus and male-hormones, which allows far more of its sperm to survive.
Beyond describing the intricacies of snail reproduction, Professor Steve Jones has also spent the past 40 years exploring genetic diversity in snails.
Genetic diversity is the bedrock of evolution: without these differences in our DNA, evolution couldn’t occur. And by wearing their genes on the outside in the form of pretty patterns on their shells, snails make a perfect model in our search for the reasons behind these differences.
In Professor Jones’ favourite species, the shells are either white or black depending on the temperature and amount of sunlight present in their ecological niche. As with humans, snails “live on the edge of a thermal cliff”, as a temperature rise of just a few degrees can be the difference between life and death.
There is also a huge amount of variation within snail populations, with light levels and the resulting temperature influencing their shell colour and behaviour.
Although talking about a complicated topic, Professor Jones was an excellent guide, discussing both art and science in an engaging and interesting way. Achieving the perfect balance, his witty delivery and hilarious stories helped to explain even the most complicated concept.
So while the idea of snails as Renaissance-era symbols of purity and virgin birth is perhaps a little dated, their own delicately patterned shells – and their depiction in art – can tell us much about how genes, and genetic variation, affect our lives.
So perhaps, according to Professor Jones, it is possible for art and science to learn from each other.