When time (or anything else) seems to pass by at an extremely slow rate, you may hear someone comment that they just saw a stampede of snails pass them by. These little creatures may be slow and non-threatening, but they have come a long way and now, scientists are suggesting that their slowness may actually cause them to split into different species more rapidly.

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Apparently, when different populations of certain species stop mating with each other, they’ll begin to split into new species. This strange occurrence has led evolutionary biologists Tim Barraclough and Yael Kisel to a most interesting theory. They believe that snails and similar slow-movers may split into new species more rapidly because they are more likely to love those close by, rather than go the distance for a long-distance relationship.

The theory was put to the test by observing the rate of new species formation in plants and animals throughout 64 islands in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. What they found out from the snails is that they were capable of splitting into new species even in the smallest of area; in their case, it would be Nihoa—approximately 200 acres (a quarter of the size of Central Park in New York) in size.

The findings are to be detailed in the March issue of The American Naturalist. One good thing about them is they may be able to help solve the age-old question of why certain groups of organisms vary so much, in terms of how many species they possess. Take land snails, for example: it has been estimated that there are over 35,000 different species of them in the world!

Kisel explains the study in a bit more detail:

“According to the model, I’d expect that successful taxa with many species, such as beetles, would be groups of organisms that occupy a large area, perhaps because they are good at colonizing new regions and adapting to many different habitats, and don’t move around very much, because they are small, or very territorial, or live somewhere with a lot of resources that are easy to exploit.”

It may surprise you to know that snails actually have a lot of cultural importance. The Aztec moon god, Tecciztecatl, has a snail shell on his back, which represents rebirth. The Greeks viewed the snail as an indicator of harvest time. Also, well-known thinker and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, believed that the snail represented the self in dreams. It goes to show that even the smallest creatures in the world can really have a big purpose.

By Heidi Marshall