Jeremy the lefty snail is dead, but his offspring are all right

Jeremy, the brown garden snail, with a much smaller snail perched on the lip of his left-coiled shell. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Jeremy, a rare left-coiled-shell brown garden snail, atop a more usual right-coiled snail. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Let's have a moment of silence for Jeremy, the lefty brown garden snail, found dead Wednesday (Oct 11) in a refrigerator in a British research lab.

Jeremy was a rare snail, with an unusual shell that made him stand out among other garden snails. He will be missed.

Jeremy won international fame for a mutation that caused his shell to coil left instead of right. For years, people searched for another lefty snail with which he could mate. Shortly before his death, she was found.

His legacy will continue in the genetic knowledge gained from the lefty snail offspring they produced together.

Jeremy was discovered in a compost heap in South West London by a retired scientist from The Natural History Museum. He recognised Jeremy was special and notified Angus Davison, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Nottingham in Britain who studies snails.

Davison wanted to know if Jeremy's left-coiled shell was inherited or just a strange developmental mishap, and for that he needed offspring.

He took Jeremy into his care and appealed to the public to find him a mate with the hashtag #leftysnail. The media followed with #snaillove, and Jeremy became a star. He even inspired a love song.

Thanks to all the attention the deviant snail received, the search for a mate ended in the discovery of six more lefty snails.

Davison is now leaning toward a genetic cause for the snail's sinistral (lefty) disposition, because some found close to one another could be siblings, but confirmation lies in future generations of Jeremy's offspring.

That may take some time.

His left-coiled shell was not the only thing making it hard to find him a mate.

His organs, including his genitals, also turned counterclockwise. Mating with righty snails was impossible.

Last November, two potential partners (Lefty of Ipswich, England and Tomeu of Majorca, Spain) were brought to Nottingham. But they appeared to prefer each other over him, producing more than 300 babies.

Just days before Jeremy's death, however, Tomeu produced more than four dozen babies, some of which Jeremy likely fathered. He did not get a chance to see the hatchlings, but "on a scientific note, he wouldn't have recognised" them, Davison said.

All of the babies were born with a right-handed shell. This means the gene causing a snail's directional twist (and body asymmetry in other animals), described last year in Current Biology, could take more than a generation for its recessive form to appear.

Once it does, Davison hopes genetic studies will reveal why the snails are so rare - and what sort of genetic switches may drive their bodies to turn one way instead of the other. The knowledge he gains studying the slimy shell-dwellers will also provide insight about body asymmetries that develop in other animals, including humans.

About 1 in 10,000 people (like Catherine O'Hara, Enrique Iglesias and Donny Osmond) have situs inversus, a rare disease, that flips their internal organ arrangement like an image in a mirror.

Jeremy had been sluggish since February, and had hibernated in the fridge, on and off since. He was fine last Friday, Oct 6, the day the hatchlings were born; by the time Davison returned to check on him Wednesday, he was dead.

He had likely been decomposing for a couple days.

"I should have put Jeremy in the freezer to preserve his DNA on Friday, but I thought so many people will be sad if Jeremy is no longer," Davison said. "I didn't do that, and it was a mistake."

His DNA degraded from the state it was in on Friday, so genetic analyses will be tougher.

Jeremy most likely died of old age. His shell, now preserved in the University of Nottingham, will serve to teach others.

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