How Snails Eat Food With 1000s Of Teeth (With Pictures & Videos)

by | Slugs & Snails, Snails

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Snails eat a lot of things, especially in backyards. But if you look at a snail you won’t clearly see lips and a mouth, so how does a snail eat all this food?

Snails eat with a cartilage jaw and a type of tongue made of thousands of tiny teeth. The jaw opens and closes as the snail crawls over food, helping to loosen soft food or cut food into strips. The snail then catches and chops up this food with its toothed tongue, called a radula.

Snails have developed many fascinating ways to find all kinds of food and eat it, from hard bark and bones to soft fruits and flowers. Here’s how they do it…

How snails find food

For a snail to eat it must find food.

Snails find food using the tips of their tentacles. A snail stretches and waves its two longer top tentacles in the air to smell food and know which direction to go to find it. When the snail gets to the food, it touches the food with its two shorter lower tentacles to smell and taste it.

But how does a snail smell food without a nose?

An odor or smell is made up of chemicals, and different odors have different chemical mixtures. The chemicals of an odor hang in the air and are carried along by the wind. Each type of snail food has its own chemical odor that floats in the air like this.

A snail has special cells at the end of its tentacles that can pick up the chemicals in odors. These cells take the chemical odors in the air and use them to send signals to the snail’s brain. The brain interprets these signals and waits until it recognizes a chemical odor of a food the snail likes to eat.

Photo of a snail with labels to the four tentacles and how they help a snail smell and find food
A snail smells food with its four tentacles. The long upper tentacles pick up the chemicals in smells, and the shorter lower tentacles taste and smell the food when the snail finds it.

Now the snail knows there’s something yummy to eat nearby, and it follows the odor in the air.

As the snail moves along, it keeps waving its tentacles around to track the odor until it gets to what it wants – the food.

How snails eat food

Once a snail finds food, it needs to eat this food.

A snail has a cartilage jaw. Cartilage is a type of connective tissue, and it’s the same tissue that human ears and noses are made of. Cartilage is softer and more flexible than bone, but still firm enough to hold its shape.

When feeding, a snail opens and closes its jaw. The jaw often stays in contact with the food, which helps to loosen food or scrape some of it off. This is how a snail uses its jaw when eating things like algae on a tree trunk or on a rock. Other times the jaw is used to hold food in place or pull off strips of food, like pieces of a leaf.

If you hold a snail in your hand, you might even feel it bite you.

The picture below shows the trails left behind after a snail scraped algae off the bark of a tree trunk. Notice the interesting markings left by the snail’s jaw and teeth as it crawled along to feed.

Photo of the tracks left on a tree trunk as snails grazed on bark algae
Tracks left behind by a snail grazing on bark algae.
Original picture sourced, with thanks, from Matthew Borden, Bartlett Tree Experts,

The next picture shows a snail pulling strips off a leaf with its jaw:

Photo of a common garden snail tearing a plant leaf with its body to eat
This snail is using its jaw to pull strips off a leaf.

Inside a snail’s mouth there are many, often many thousands, of microscopic teeth. These teeth sit in rows on a membrane along the bottom of the snail’s mouth, pretty much where your tongue sits. This toothed tongue is called a radula.

The teeth make a snail’s radula rough to the touch, like sandpaper or a cat’s tongue.

But the radula can move back and forth inside the mouth, which means that a snail can move its teeth in its mouth.

When its jaw opens, the snail moves its toothed tongue along the food to collect pieces of food or scrape off food, much like a nail file scrapes off little pieces of a nail. In fact, when a snail is grating food with its radula like this, it often makes a sound that you can hear.

After cutting food into tiny pieces with its radula, the snail uses saliva to send the food down its throat using muscular contractions. Once the food is in the snail’s stomach inside the shell, the food can be digested and then pooped out.

The following video is a wonderful example of a snail eating a piece of lettuce. See how the snail can eat a long strip of lettuce in one sitting? That’s because it uses its radula to chop the lettuce into tiny pieces in its mouth.

The next video shows a water snail eating algae off the walls of its aquarium. In it you can see how the snail scrapes algae off the glass with its radula every time the mouth opens.

How to get rid of snails in your yard

The tips and products from Amazon below will help you get rid of snails in your yard:

  • First make sure you have snails: Look for them or look for the shiny, silvery mucus trails snails leave behind on plants, floors, and when they climb up walls.
  • If you have snails in your yard, sprinkle these organic snail killer granules around the area. The granules smell like food to snails, so they come out of their hiding spots to eat the poison. The granules are biodegradable, safe to use around pets, children, and wildlife, and are still good after rainfall.
  • If you have a problem with snails on certain plants or in certain areas, spray the plant or area with this non-toxic snail repellent made with essential oils. It can be used indoors or outdoors, and even around the perimeter of your yard to keep snails out.
  • In the evening, water your garden well and set a beer trap by putting a small plastic bowl in the ground near the plants the snails are eating. Put the bowl deep enough to leave 1 inch above the ground or cover the trap with a loose lid to stop insects from falling in. Fill the bowl halfway with fresh beer. Empty it out and put fresh beer in every night until you no longer find snails in the morning. If you don’t want to make your own beer trap, you can buy beer traps from Amazon.
  • A DIY option is to go out and pick up snails with your hands (I suggest wearing gloves for this). The best time to look for snails is after sunset and rainfall. Click here to find out what to do with snails collected from your yard.

I'm Monique. I love gardening and spending time in my backyard growing things. Here's where I share what I know about backyard pests and what to do about them, so you can enjoy your yard too.

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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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