You just found a little snail in your garden (or was it your salad, maybe?), and despite its slime and all, you actually think it’s a cute critter. So cute that the idea the resident gardener (spouse, parent, neighbour…) wouldn’t think twice about killing it makes you feel sorry for it and you decide to take it home for safety.
Whatever your reasons, congratulations, you have a pet snail! Now what?
Brought to you by popular demand, this post will share with you the basic tips and information for setting up a simple but effective terrarium for local snails
1. The box
If you’re going to keep your snail indoors, you will need a box or tank in which you will recreate its habitat. I find glass tanks perfect for this use but buying a new one can be pricey (even if as small as 20-40 litres). An old aquarium you no longer use will do the trick – if you don’t have one at home, try getting one second-hand: they will usually sell for cheap. For the DIY-savvy, you can also build your own glass (or resin) tank: the same instructions to build an aquarium apply, except that you don’t have to worry about making it pressure-resistant and all since it won’t be filled be water.
But if you want to go for something cheaper, you can also use a plastic box, such as a medium- or large-sized fauna box or a tall, transparent storage box (with removable lid). Either way, make sure it is not too small: height should be at least 18-20 cm, and length at least 20-30 cm. The bigger, the better: it is very hard to keep humidity levels right in a small tank.
Do not place the terrarium under direct sunlight! This is a common mistake, but snails do not enjoy basking in the sun like reptiles do, and while different snail species have different levels of tolerance towards dryness and sunlight, excessive exposure to sunlight (which to certain species equals to a mere couple of hours) will result in dehydration and death.
The first thing you will need to add to your tank or box is the substrate. The substrate should be about 7-10 cm deep. A layer of all-purpose, peat-free potting soil will do, which you can buy from any gardening centre. Hint: check the bag for the pH measurement (which is usually written in small print on the back): what you want to buy is soil with pH above 7. Soil with a lower pH is acid and this on the long run may damage your snail’s delicate shell.
If you decide to use soil from your own garden be prepared to bring in your tank also all the tiny critters that inhabit it. For this reason, some people recommend “sterilising” the soil by putting it in the hot oven or in the fridge for some time before pouring it in the tank.
Snails are usually crepuscular or nocturnal creatures, and will often spend daytime hiding, so you want to provide them with a “home” to which they can retire. A broken terracotta flower pot will provide a comfortable hiding spot for most snails. Some species however prefer hiding among rocks, while others will climb as high as possible and rest under the lid of the terrarium, and others yet will burrow in the soil, so you will have to observe your snail’s behaviour to adapt the terrarium to its specific needs and preferences.
Snails are also keen climbers and will appreciate twigs and branches. If you wish, you can use a small plate in which to place food instead of placing it directly on the soil (not recommended if you also keep earthworms and other tank mates that should feed on the left-overs).
Do not add a pool or water dish. While some exotic snails (such as Achatina spp.) appreciate it, our local snails do not need it and may actually drown in it.
Even in a small, basic terrarium it is a good idea to keep some live plants. Ivy, ferns and moss are a good choice for a tank where humidity is high and sunlight exposure low. Ivy in particular is very versatile and suited even for small tanks.
Hint: avoid planting in your terrarium plants which will need plenty of sunlight or other conditions which are incompatible with your snail.
Aeration and humidity in your tank are important and the lid you will use will influence both. There are different options you may adopt, which are basically different compromises: the more aeration, in fact, the less humidity in the tank. You will have to find the balance that works for your own tank.
Aeration is provided by holes and openings either on the side of the tank, or, more commonly on the lid. If you are using a fauna box, you will notice it comes with plenty of narrow holes in the lid. If the box or tank you are using doesn’t come with holes and openings, you will have to make them yourself. If you are using a plastic lid the simplest thing is to cut off a piece of it and make a “window” of sorts (see pic above).
Please note all openings and holes (no matter how small) should be always covered with mosquito net, to keep fruit flies and other small insects out of your tank. Glue the net on the outside to make sure your snail won’t get in contact with the glue.
Please note different snail species require different levels of humidity, but as a general rule your tank shouldn’t be either a swamp or a desert. Check the soil – it should be moist but never puddly. Hint: if your tank is too damp, you may need more openings. If it is too dry in spite of spraying water regularly, you may want to try and cover some of the existing holes with plastic wrap.
6. Tank mates
Even if you set up your tank primarily for a snail, there are other critters that can inhabit it and prove invaluable tank mates. Earth worms and pill bugs are highly beneficial, because they help keeping the tank clean by eating small debris and earthworms in particular will help aerating and draining the soil by burrowing in it. They also improve the quality of the soil for the plants and both are harmless for snails and their eggs. So even if you’re setting up a very simply terrarium, consider the option of adding them.
With these basic tips in mind you can set up a simple but adequate terrarium for your slimy friend. Make sure you have a spray bottle you can use to moisturise it – do not reuse an old one that once contained chemicals or soaps or other potentially dangerous substances and buy instead a new one (you can find them for cheap at most garden centres).
What to feed to your snail depends on the species but most snails found in gardens will happily feed on vegetables and fruit (no citrus, though!). Also, leave a piece of cuttlefish bone in the terrarium (they are commonly in commerce as calcium supplies for birds): your snail will appreciate it!