Snails move more quickly than you think, according to a new study from England that attached light-emitting diode (LED) lights to the shells of these gastropods to measure their movements. This shell surveillance was done to explore why a deadly parasitic disease, carried by the snails, has rapidly spread through dogs in the UK.
Canine lungworm — Angiostrongylus vasorum — was first detected in south Wales in the 1980s and spent the following decade mostly confined to the southern reaches of Great Britain. New cases have appeared as far north as Scotland in the last two years, suggesting the parasite has quickly expanded its territory.
Caused by dogs accidentally eating garden snails, symptoms of the disease include coughing, reluctance to exercise, depression, and vomiting.
UK’s population of garden snails increased by 50 percent last year, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, potentially due to consecutive summers that have featured heavy rain. This led researchers at the University of Exeter to ask if the pace of the snails could have aided the rapid spread of the disease.
"They are so slow that people don't even think about them moving, but it turns out they do, and they can go a long way in a night," lead author Dr. Dave Hodgson told the BBC. Observed for 24 hours at a time, the LED-carrying snails could cover a distance of 82 feet in a night.
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The drug company Bayer commissioned the study as part of an animal health awareness campaign called Be Lungworm Aware.
The canine lungworm is rare in the Americas, with the only confirmed cases in Newfoundland. However other parts of North America, especially coastal regions, could harbor the disease-carrying snails, and some worry that climate change or the accidental introduction of untreated dogs may lead to new endemics in other regions.
"By learning more about the behaviour of snails, we hope dog owners can better understand they ways in which dogs can encounter snails on a day-to-day basis and the lungworm risk they present, taking the appropriate precautions," Hodgson remarked to Sky News.