A British Museum Exhibit From Egypt, Seemingly Dead, Suddenly Woke Up
Yes, in 1850, an exhibit from Egypt that had been in The British Museum for years, and that had been labeled throughout all this time as dead, returned to life. It was not a mummified pharaoh, however, just in case any of you thought that for some reason. It was a snail.
Someone donated this Eremina desertorum specimen to the museum in 1846. The museum glued it to an index card, which was the normal way of displaying deceased animals that needed no special preservation. It stayed that way for four years.
Then a staff member noticed something weird. He was shell expert William Baird, fresh off publishing the gripping thriller The Natural History of the British Entomostraca, and he saw what looked like a dried mucus membrane closing up the shell. To an untrained eye, dried mucus means something is dead, or at least too gross to merit further examination. But Baird knew this kind of mucus instead suggests the snail is in a deep torpor.
In the desert, snails have to deal with extreme heat, extreme cold, and extreme dryness. During the day, they shut down, sealing their shell either with a mucus membrane (an epiphragm) or a special plate built into the shell. That short day torpor is called aestivation. Snails can also manage a much longer hibernation. The snail seals itself all winter and even slows its heartbeat almost all the way down so it doesn’t need to feed. Most slugs die during the winter (leaving just their eggs behind to create the next generation), but the snail survives the winter just fine this way, even bearing temperatures of 40 below zero.
The Eremina desertorum specimen hadn’t awoken from its hibernation, perhaps because the climate in England never gets as warm as Egyptian spring. Baird put it now in a warm bath, the epiphragm melted away, and the snail poked its head out. It spent the remainder of its time in The British Museum visibly alive, with another snail kept in its enclosure for company.
We all know The British Museum is famous for stealing artifacts for around the world. Now that we know they also unwittingly took live samples, we can add one more offense to their rap sheet: kidnapping.
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Top image: A. N. Waterhouse