Paper-Eating Snails: Why Snails Can’t Say No To Paper

by | Slugs & Snails, Snails

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Has something been eating your mail or your seed packets? Well, it might be snails!

Snails eat paper and paper products, like cardboard, paper towels, tissue paper, magazines, newspapers, seed packets, sticky notes, and mail. They eat paper for fiber and calcium. The main ingredient in paper is fiber called cellulose, which comes from trees. Calcium is often added to paper as a filler.

Snails have a rather fascinating way of eating paper and even more amazing reasons why they do it. Eating paper for snails is like eating a slice of cake for you – a yummy treat. Let’s look at how and why snails eat paper, how to tell if it’s snails eating paper in your yard or house, and how to stop them.

How snails eat paper

Photo of a mailbox with letters inside waiting for snails to come and eat them

Snails love to eat paper and anything made from paper, especially when it’s wet from the rain or a sprinkler.

Snails crawl around at night looking for food. They aren’t fussy eaters and will eat pretty much anything they can find. They usually find food by sniffing it out with their tentacles, but sometimes they are lucky and happen to crawl over something tasty to eat.

When snails find paper to eat in your yard, your trash, your mailbox, your house, or your greenhouse, they start eating the paper (usually from the side or a corner). Snails often crawl onto paper before eating it for two reasons: to taste the paper with their lower tentacles and to hold the paper in place with their body while they eat it.

Snails either hold the paper in their mouth using their cartilage jaw or they might use their jaw to tear the paper into small strips, much like they tear up a leaf. Now it’s time to use their teeth: Snails have thousands of tiny teeth in their mouth that they move back and forth to grate or chop the paper into very small pieces as they move their mouth over the paper.

Photo of a common garden snail tearing a plant leaf with its body to eat
This snail is tearing strips off a leaf using its cartilage jaw. A snail can tear strips off paper in the same way.

When these tiny paper pieces reach the snail’s stomach, they are broken down by digestive juices. A snail’s digestive juices are strong enough to digest most things found in nature, including fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and cellulose.

When snails eat paper, they are after the cellulose and calcium in the paper.

Cellulose is a type of fiber found in the cell walls of plants and trees. It supports cells to make plants and trees firm enough to stand upright, otherwise they would fall over.

The main ingredient in paper and paper products comes from trees, which means that paper has a lot of cellulose in it. Cellulose makes paper strong and durable.

Water relaxes the cellulose bonds in paper, making it soft and mushy. Wet paper is easier for a snail to eat than dry paper, but snails happily eat dry paper if that’s what they can find as their saliva mixes with the dry paper to make it soft enough to swallow.

Enzymes in a snail’s stomach turn cellulose into glucose, a sugar that gives the snail energy.

Calcium is often added to paper as a filler. When fillers are added to paper, the manufacturing process becomes cheaper because the manufacturer uses less of the more expensive materials to make the paper. Fillers also change the way the paper feels and looks.

Snails must get calcium in their diet because calcium makes their shell strong and keeps their body functioning. Calcium is so important that snails will climb up your house to eat your walls if they can’t get enough calcium from the soil below.

Any paper that isn’t digested in the snail’s stomach or absorbed by the intestines gets pooped out, passing out the side of the shell and dropping to the ground.

The following video shows a snail munching on a piece of paper:

How to tell if snails are eating your paper

Snails eat paper the same way they eat leaves, so they leave the same signs of damage on paper as they do on leaves.

The following are all signs that snails are eating your paper:

  • Slimy, silvery trails on the paper or on the ground nearby, especially in the morning
  • Large holes in the middle of the paper
  • Half-moon/concave holes around the edges of the paper, with the holes getting bigger over time
  • Thin lines scraped out of the paper
  • No evidence of chewed paper lying around: Snails swallow the paper they tear off but mice, rats, and squirrels often leave torn or chewed bits of paper lying around
  • Paper being eaten in early spring, before other insects come out for the summer. Snails are most active in spring and summer, but many snails hibernate in areas with cold winters and you shouldn’t see any paper damage from snails when temperatures drop a lot
Photo of snail and snail damage
Snails often eat holes in the middle of leaves and do the same to paper. They swallow the pieces and do not leave them lying around.

Is paper bad for snails?

Below you will find three reasons why paper is bad for snails:

Paper can contain harmful additives

Paper is made by man and is not a natural product that snails would find and eat in the wild. It is much safer for snails to get cellulose from trees and plants than from paper and paper products.

Paper is not only made from cellulose. Other elements are often added during the paper manufacturing process such as bleach, chlorine, dyes, inks, glues on sticky notes, and fillers like titanium oxide, clay, and calcium.

Over time, these elements can build up in a snail’s body and cause harm.

The cellulose in paper gives snails a sugar high

Another reason why paper is bad for snails is its high concentration of cellulose.

Paper can be made of up to 99% cellulose, which snails convert to sugar. When snails eat something with so much cellulose in it, they get a big boost of energy much like a sugar high.

This sugar high doesn’t happen when they eat cellulose in the wild because plants are only made of 33% cellulose and trees are made of 50% cellulose.

So, ounce for ounce, snails get two to three times the amount of cellulose (sugar) from paper than they do from eating the same amount of plant or tree material. This sugar kick isn’t healthy for them and is not part of a natural, balanced diet for snails.

Paper doesn’t have much nutritional value for snails

When snails eat plant material they get many other nutrients from the food, but there are no other nutrients or health benefits from eating paper. Snails need to eat many different foods to get what they need to stay healthy.

The good news is that small amounts of paper and paper products in a snail’s diet shouldn’t do the snail much harm. Snails have a way of adapting to their environment and thriving in it when they can build up a tolerance to things over time.

How to stop snails eating your mail

One of the most common complaints people have about snails is that snails eat their mail. Many bills and checks have been lost to hungry snails in the snail mail system.

Here are 6 tips with product recommendations from Amazon to get snails to stop eating your mail:

  • To stop snails from climbing up your mailbox, put copper flashing around the mailbox pole or around the entrance where snails are getting in. Copper reacts with snail slime and gives snails a light electric shock, so they don’t like crossing it.
  • If you don’t want to use copper flashing as a barrier, try 100% pure petroleum jelly as snails struggle to crawl over petroleum jelly. Put a thick layer of petroleum jelly around the mailbox entrances to stop snails from getting inside.
  • Sprinkle these organic snail killer granules inside your mailbox. The granules smell like food to snails, but once they eat the pellets they die. These specific granules are biodegradable, and safe to use around pets, children, and wildlife. If you buy another brand read the instructions and warnings carefully to make sure you use them as directed.
  • Other things you can put in your mailbox to stop snails from moving around in there are: broken egg shells that have been washed, cat litter, sawdust, rock salt, or diatomaceous earth. These are all rough and snails don’t like crawling over them with their soft body.
  • Spray your mailbox with this non-toxic snail repellent made from essential oils. Snails don’t like the smell and should stay far away from your mailbox. Be sure to reapply the spray regularly, especially in spring and summer when snails are most active.
  • Or spray your mailbox with salt diluted in warm water. Table salt kills snails by dehydrating them, so they stay away from it. You’ll need to reapply the saltwater spray after heavy rains.

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MONIQUE

Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.

 

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