Snail is a common name which is applied to most of the members of the molluscanclass Gastropoda that have coiled shells in the adult stage. When the word is used in its most general sense, it includes sea snails, land snails and freshwater snails. The word snail without any qualifier is however more often applied to land snails than to those from the sea or freshwater. Snail-like animals that naturally lack a shell, or have only an internal shell, are often called slugs, and land species that have only a very small shell (that they cannot retract into) are called semislugs.
Several species of the genus Achatina and related genera are known as Giant African land snails; some grow to 15 in (38 cm) from snout to tail, and weigh 1 kilogram (2 lb). The largest living species of sea snail is Syrinx aruanus which has a shell that can measure up to 90 cm (35 in) in length, and the whole animal with the shell can weigh up to 18 kg (40 lb).
Snails that respire using a lung belong to the group Pulmonata, while those with gillsform a paraphyletic group; in other words, snails with gills are divided into a number oftaxonomic groups that are not very closely related. Snails with lungs and with gills have diversified widely enough over geological time that a few species with gills can be found on land, numerous species with a lung can be found in freshwater, and a few species with a lung can be found in the sea.
Snails can be found in a very wide range of environments including ditches, deserts, and the abyssal depths of the sea. Although many people are familiar with terrestrialsnails, land snails are in the minority. Marine snails constitute the majority of snail species, and have much greater diversity and a greater biomass. Numerous kinds of snail can also be found in fresh waters. Most snails have thousands of microscopic tooth-like structures located on a ribbon-like tongue called a radula. The radula works like a file, ripping the food into small pieces. Many snails are herbivorous, eating plants or rasping algae from surfaces with the radula, though a few land species and many marine species are omnivores or predatory carnivores.
Slug is a common name that is normally applied to any gastropod mollusc that lacks a shell, has a very reduced shell, or has a small internal shell. (This is in contrast to the common name snail, applied to gastropods that have a coiled shell large enough that the soft parts of the animal can retract fully into it.)
Slugs belong to several different lineages which also include snails that have shells. The various families of land slugs are not very closely related, despite a superficial similarity in the overall body form. The shell-less condition has arisen many times independently during the evolutionary past, and thus the category “slug” is emphatically a polyphyletic one.
As well as land slugs, there are also many marine slugs and even one freshwater slug genus (Acochlidium), but the common name “slug” is most frequently applied to air-breathing land slugs, while the marine forms are usually known as sea slugs. Land gastropods with a shell that is not quite vestigial, but is too small to retract into (like many in the family Urocyclidae), are known as semislugs.
Slugs, like all other gastropods, undergo torsion (a 180° twisting of the internal organs) during development. Internally, slug anatomy clearly shows the effects of this rotation, but externally the bodies of slugs appear rather symmetrical, except for the positioning of the pneumostome, which is on one side of the animal, normally the right hand side.
The soft, slimy bodies of slugs are prone to desiccation, so land-living slugs are confined to moist environments and must retreat to damp hiding places when the weather is dry.