Cabinet of Curiosities Episode 3 Fact File

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I’ve recently been making a documentary miniseries and podcast called “The Cabinet of Curiosities,” looking at the wonderful stories behind items in my own natural history collections. In the course of researching these shows, I’ve come across many a wonderful fact, so I thought I’d share a few in the days and weeks to follow. I very much hope you enjoy:

Fact: Snails may have been the inspiration for classical myths of Cupid.

I'll state firstly that this is little more than speculation, but interesting speculation at that. It is the argument of a Canadian biology professor who has compiled a case to suggest that the 'love darts' snails use when mating gave rise to the god's love-inducing arrows. This phenomenon certainly was known at the time, and it was believed that the darts had aphrodisiacal properties. Hence it does make sense how the myth may have emerged from this grain of "truth," albeit impossible to prove. Snails are hermaphrodites, which perhaps would have added an interesting twist to the mythology!!

Some more snail/slug tidbits that I've come across:

Snails celebrities include of course Jeremy- a fleetingly rare left-coiled (sinistral) garden snail, named after lefty politician Jeremy Corbyn. It could only mate with other sinistral snails, but luckily two others were eventually found and brought to the university at which it was being kept. All of the Jeremy's 56 offspring had right-coiling shells.

Reading “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare” (Lilian Randall), I found also that for about 35yrs at the turn of the 13th century, the margins of manuscripts in England and France were frequently decorated with knights battling giant snails. There are several scholarly interpretations of these images: it may be satire, as a symbol of the knight's false bravado, or it may symbolize social climbing, and hence the rise of the bourgeois at the time. The most convincing explanation presented is that snails had a long-standing association with the Lombards- a tribe that ruled much of Northern Italy at the time. Hence it may well have been a xenophobic slur upon these timid cowards, ridiculed since their surrender to King Charlemagne in 772 AD.

Lastly, the snail telegraph made to prove a popular belief that the creatures made a permanent telepathic link during mating. It was part of a pseudo-science trend into sympathetic communication, with a whole string of grizzly experiments on humans and animals. It was started by a certain Mr Jacques Benoit, who constructed a wooden platform with 24 zinc bowls on it. At the bottom of each was a snail representing a letter in the alphabet. The sender would press one of the snails (which were glued in place), whilst would supposedly cause a reaction in the receiver's identical device which had a snail that was paired with the one that was pressed, representing the same letter. Suffice to say, it didn't work.

Another fact i love is that the first woman to compete in an international car race took on the pseudonym of 'snail.' Her name was Hélène van Zuylen, and she was the wife of the French automobile club's president in the late 19th century. Apparently she didn't see the irony in her naming herself "escargot."

Fact: Strange names of sea creatures include the sea butterfly, the spiny lumpsucker, sarcastic fringehead, slippery dick, sea pig and sleep on grass.

As you can tell, I had some fun scouring my field guide to fishes for this! Tiny phytoplankton called diatoms found in the ocean also have some fairly good ones: spiral curvydisk, shortfooted foamflower, star-bellied footcord and such. Moving out of the seas, there is the snotty parrot, stink badger and sap sucker- all of which double-up as classy insults.

Spongiforma squarepantsii has a pretty darn cool scientific name. It's rivalled by Ba humbug and the extinct parrot species Vini vidivici. Then there's the classics: the satanic leaf-tailed gecko, strange-tailed tyrant and screaming hairy armadillo. Some names do what they say on the tin, like the penis snake and fried egg jellyfish. Who needs Photoshop after all?

And there's a cactus called dildo.