Monday, May 14, 2012

Helix cantiaci

Due to the recent inclement weather things have been a little slow in the botanical department. All is not lost however, as snails seem to be loving it. So there's time for a little more helical delight. We found this very pretty snail in Dover.


To digress a moment. Everyone knows that if you're in possession of Y chromosome and live in East Kent (east of the River Medway), you're a Man of Kent. If you live west of the Medway you're a Kentish Man. The Association of the Men of Kent and Kentish Men was established in 1913 to celebrate these idiosyncratic cultural distinctions. A possible derivation of this tradition is that the Medway was the border of the ancient kingdoms of Jutish East Kent and Saxon West Kent.

What has this to do with snails? Well, what applies to men, could also apply to gastropods. Snails have cultural identity too. As there are Kentish Men, there are also Kentish Snails. The snail above is a Kentish Snail Monacha cantiana.  I know Dover is actually in East Kent....so strictly speaking these particular Kentish Snails should be called Snails of Kent.


The Kentish Snail was probably an accidental introduction to the UK by Roman farmers. Monacha is from the Greek monachos, meaning 'solitary' (as in monk) and cantiana refers to Kent. The old Kingdom of Kent was called Cantia regnum in Latin.

Kentish snails are not only attractive (well, this colour variation is) but also hairy snails. Juveniles are hairy but the hairs wear off over time. The hairs may assist young snailings in getting a better grip on slippery wet vegetation.


The snail was named (I believe) by the naturalist George Montagu (1751-1815). George wrote a roaringly good book called Testacea Britannica or Natural History of British Shells (1803). (It's accessible free on Google Books.)

Here's page 422 from Testacea Britannica describing Helix cantiana...


I assume the Dr Lister referred to above is the naturalist Martin Lister (1639-1714). He wrote a weighty tome on British Shells called Historiae Conchyliorum (1685). His wife, Anna produced the stunning engravings. Here's an example from Wikipedia.

I've digressed again......pardon. Back to George Montagu. Here he is. (Picture from Wikipedia.)



George was not only an expert on shells, but also a skilful ornithologist. He wrote an Ornithological Dictionary of British Birds (1802) (The 2nd Edition (1831) is freely available on Google e-books.)

Few individuals have the honour of having a species named after them. George is one of this select group. He was responsible for discovering that hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) and Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus), are in fact 2 separate species. The following pictures of Montagu's harrier aren't mine. They were taken by Steve Ray (Greater Kent Birder) and are used with his permission.


George was born in Wiltshire in 1753. He pursued a military career, becoming a Captain in the army 1775, 3 years after he married Ann, a daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bute. In 1776 he was posted to America during the War of Independence. A member of George's company was killed in battle in 1777 and George relinquished his commission 2 weeks later. Contemporary reports indicate George was an honourable man who was deeply distressed by the brutality of soldiers towards civilians.

His time in America seems to have kindled his interest in natural history; through shooting unusual American birds that he wanted to show his family (There were no digital cameras in the 18th century.) George later rejoined the Militia in Wiltshire and attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He started started writing in around 1792 and in 1795 was elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society. He was clearly a naturalist of some note by this time. Tragically he died of tetanus 3 days after stepping accidentally on a rusty nail. He contributed a vast amount to our understanding of native species of birds, snails and fish, and more besides. His legacy lives on.


More information

A good biography of George Montagu by Tony Pratt (2003) is here.

George's paper on Hen Harriers (Transactions of the Linnean Society, May 5th 1807) is online here at the Internet Archive.

George also has a fish named after him.

If you wish to purchase a copy of Lister's book on shells it will set you back 16,000 Euros (excluding VAT). Phew!

A jolly good key to UK snails (specific to the Bristol area) is here.

More information on Monacha cantiana is here on Animal base. I couldn't see any hairs on the snails I found but here's a picture of a young hairy one.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Mel, very enjoyable post thank you. Lis

    ReplyDelete