Snails, Darwin, and the Origin of a Beautiful Species


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Photograph by J. Bedek

The snail family has a new member: Zospeum tholussum, a gorgeous subterranean snail found in one of the deepest caves in the world, 3,000 feet below ground in the Lukina Jama–Trojama cave system in Croatia. This cave-dwelling specimen measures a minuscule 1 millimeter in width, has limited sight, and tends not to move around much in its habitat of cold, deep mud. But we’re most intrigued by its gorgeous, fragile, near-translucent spiraled shell.

This snail is a fascinating testament to adaptation, since it has developed its lovely, fragile shell thanks to its environment. “[N]utrients are poor, and evolving a thick, costly shell is a waste of energy,” explains taxonomist Alexander Weigand in a recent article in the journal Subterranean Biology. You can read more about this little guy or gal at Popular Science or simply by Googling “translucent snail.” It has made headlines around the world.

This scientific discovery puts me in mind of Charles Darwin, who, in the process of explaining natural selection, also celebrated the beauty of our world and all the diverse species it holds. Just enjoy this poetic closing line from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
 

It’s interesting to note that in Darwin’s original 1859 version, this final sentence didn’t include the phrase “by the Creator.” He added the reference to the Creator in editions produced a few years later. Yet, if you look at Darwin’s writings across his life, you can see how much he remained conflicted on matters of God, faith, and religion. In any case, wherever you think that original breath might have come from, it’s impossible to ignore what is almost a spiritual appreciation of the natural wonders he was writing about.

Welcome again to Zospeum tholussum, the tiny snail who is one of the “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that came from “so simple a beginning.”

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