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Tim Pearce’s eyebrows arch playfully as he delivers an original snail joke. “Why don’t they serve McEscargot at McDonald’s?” he asks, pausing ever so briefly. “Because they serve fast food.” One-liners like this have made the joyful bearded 65-year-old an unlikely social media “shell-ebrity.” The head of the mollusks section at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, with more than 1.3 million specimens in his care, Pearce shares his snail humor on Mollusk Mondays via TikTok. His videos have generated 1.5 million likes and 8 million views, and prompted strangers to stop him on the street, where they get—you guessed it—a snail joke.
Q: What’s your favorite snail joke?
A: Barack Obama went to a costume party, giving his wife a piggyback ride. When he got there, the host said, “Welcome, Mr. President. What are you dressed up as?” Barack said, “I’m a snail. Can’t you see that’s M’shell on my back?”
Q: How many snail jokes have you written?
A: Three years ago, I started compiling snail jokes to maybe write a book. I have about 300, and some are really bad jokes. Some are kids’ jokes adapted to be about snails. Two snails are talking and one says, “What if I don’t know what the word apocalypse means?” The other says, “It’s not like it’s the end of the world or anything.” It’s not really a snail joke, so maybe it doesn’t belong in this book. So instead of calling it 1001 Snail Jokes, I could go with 101 Snail Jokes and all could be reasonably good. Or if I can get up to 365, I’ll have a snail-joke-a-day calendar.
Q: Is humor your way of getting people interested in your serious study of snails?
A: I hope so. I try to tell a fun fact along with a joke. The radula is a feeding structure in the snail’s mouth. It’s like a cheese grater. The snail scrapes that over the food and it breaks off chunks into the mouth. The joke is: snails can help make America grate again.
Q: Sometimes overlooked, do snails need to be protected?
A: Snails are out of sight because many of them are really, really tiny. The median [average] size is about an eighth of an inch, so half the species are smaller than that. Snails are some of the most imperiled species on the planet. There are more documented extinctions of land snails than there are of all vertebrate animals.
Q: Why should people care about snails?
A: Snails are important because they chew up dead leaves and turn them back into soil so that the trees can grow again. They’re really important for the whole food web. Fireflies and birds eat snails. If you love fireflies, you gotta love snails because that’s their food. Right? In some species of birds, there’s more calcium in the eggshell than in the whole skeleton. Birds get all that calcium in the eggshell from eating snails. Snails are really important to bird reproduction.
Q: What prompted you to start studying snails?
A: I love to collect things. I think I have an extra collecting gene. But I don’t like killing things. You can find a dead snail shell and add it to your collection without harming anything.
Q: What’s your current research focus?
A: It’s about a formerly common snail called the tiger snail. It’s one of the species of snails that’s been dramatically declining in Pennsylvania—it’s now in fewer than half as many counties as were known before. I’m expanding the study to the entire northeastern United States. For this particular analysis, I’m using more than 130,000 land snail records from a bunch of museums to test whether acid rain contributed to the tiger snail’s decline.
Q: How many land snail researchers are in the United States?
A: Probably fewer than 20. You go to a mollusk meeting in North America, and the land snail sessions will be on the last afternoon of the last day of a five-day conference. There’s a lot more interest in Europe.
Q: Do you consider yourself the Jimmy Kimmel of this small group of snail scientists?
A: I’d love to think I’m as funny as he is. There are other funny snail people.
Q: Have you ever eaten escargot?
A: Yes. I try to be a vegetarian but I’ve eaten snails and slugs as well. No, I don’t feel guilty.
Q: Has your TikTok stardom made you more active on social media?
A: I try to ignore social media. I prefer to spend my time on my scientific research.
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