by Timothy A. Pearce
Edgar Allen Poe is well-known as an American writer of poems and short stories, including some spooky works that are often repeated around Halloween. Many people are surprised to learn that Poe once edited a book on shells, “The Conchologist’s First Book”, published in 1839. Poe’s shell book is a condensed version of a book by Thomas Wyatt. Poe wrote the preface and introduction initially; then he made more substantial changes.
Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is about someone who kills a man, then hides the body under the floorboards. The murderer, while talking with the police, is initially calm, but goes mad from the perceived sound of a heartbeat, and thinking the sound is the dead man’s beating heart, confesses to the crime.
In honor of Halloween and in recognition of Poe’s contributions to the study of mollusks, I made this gif movie of a snail’s heart beating, visible through the shell. The snail is Neohelix dentifera (the big-tooth whitelip snail), a land snail commonly found in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in northeastern North America. First you see the face with the four tentacles (the upper two tentacles have eyes on the tips; the lower tentacles are for smelling and tasting). Then as I turn the snail you get a quick peek at the breathing pore above the head, then you can look through the translucent shell to see the heart beat 3 times. It is the Tell-Snail Heart!
Timothy A. Pearce is Curator of Collections, Section of Mollusks at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.