The Un-Elephant Elephant Snail

Despite what you may think, elephant snails do not have huge ears. Nor do they have tusks, or a massive trunk. In fact, these gastropods look nothing like the land mammal, which makes you ponder about the name, doesn’t it?

Despite the slight Dumbo-disappointment, elephant snails sure are a fascinating species, found in many a home aquarium.

Why don’t we get to know this black snail a little more?

Orange elephant snail

What Are Elephant Snails?

Elephant snails are large, slow-moving gastropods that live in saltwater environments in Australia and surrounding islands. Classed as a “false limpet”, it belongs to the same family as slit and keyhole limpets, known as Fissurellidae.

Fun Fact: The elephant snail is a false limpet and not a true limpet because of the mantle slit; rather than a slit or hole, there is simply a notch.

Also known by the scientific name Scutus antipodes, you may know the elephant snail as:

  • Elephant slug

  • Ducks bill limpet

  • Shield slug

What Are the OTHER Types of Elephant Snail?

There is another snail species that has adopted the elephant name: Pollicaria, also known as elephant pupinid snails. These snails have been given the name because they are large in size (just like an elephant), and their long shells mimic insect pupae (hence pupinid).

Elephant pupinid snails are land snails, though.

The elephant snail we are discussing today – Scutus antipodes, is a marine snail. It lives in saltwater habitats around Australia, and not on land.

Freshwater rabbit snails, from the Tylomelania family, are also sometimes referred to as elephant snails by aquarium enthusiasts.

What Do Elephant Snails Look Like?

Being a “false limpet”, the image of an elephant snail looks quite different to other marine snails. It almost looks like the long gastropod has been stepped on and flattened, quite different to the intricate and ornate array of designs available in other tank-friendly species.

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Shell Style

To start with, this sea snail does not have a full shell. It has a half shell, sometimes called a reduced shell, and it is not always completely visible.

The body has folds of skin that can partially cover the elongated, oval shell. It is usually symmetrical in shape and design, and has been described as shield-shaped.

Experts believe that the snails’ shell-home is often hidden away and not easy to see. The elephant snail reveals it when disturbed or threatened. Not only does it mimic a shield, but the snail will use its portable home as a shield, too.

Body

The body (also known as foot) of the elephant snail splays out from beneath the reduced shell, usually quite a bit larger than the home on its back. For this reason, the elephant snail often looks like very large, very dark colored slug.

Colors

The foot of the elephant snail is very dark, close to black, with very few variations. The two tentacles that are found on the top of the head of the snail are also black.

The shell, however, is usually lighter in color – white, off-white, ivory, creamy-yellow. When people see it, they usually think it looks like a black slug with a white painted stripe.

How Big Do Elephant Snails Get?

As the name might suggest, elephant snails are a large species. Adult individuals can grow to a length of 6.5 inches (16.5 cm), including shell and body.

The average shell size for an elephant snail found in the wild is approximately 3.9 inches in length (10 cm).

Where Does the Elephant Snail Live in the Wild?

This marine snail species is native to the waters around New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia, from New South Wales on the east coast to Western Australia.

They seem to have a fondness for rocky reefs and shallow waters and can commonly be found hiding underneath boulders and other beach debris, especially during low tides.  

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It is unlikely that you will find an elephant snail in a habitat deeper than 20 meters.

Because of their location, it seems likely the case that this gastropod prefers water temperatures that are on the warm-to-cool side, rather than warm-to-hot or tropical.

Can Elephant Snails Live on Land?

In the shallow waters and rocky reefs around New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia, elephant snails do spend some time on the beach during low tides, but they can only really be on land, exposed to the sun and out of water, for a short period of time.

When they are on the shore, elephant snails prefer to be in pools and damp areas in and around boulders and wet rock, etc.

During periods of exposure, the gastropods will instinctively move to hide underneath rocks, trash, and other beach debris in their local habitat. This is to avoid predators and drying out in the hot sun, but also to avoid the powerful UV rays.

What Do Elephant Snails Eat?

Elephant snails are herbivores that feed on seaweed and drifting algae in the shallow waters of Australia and other places in which they are found. They usually consume seaweed and algae at night, under the protection of darkness, when the tides are low, and food is much easier (and safer) to find. There are fewer animals to compete with at night.

They will often vacuum up algae and other organisms on rocks, boulders, corals, and reefs, essentially helping to keep them clean. This also applies to ornaments and live rock in home tanks, and the glass.

The long chemosensory tentacles make foraging a breeze. The same tentacles also help the snail to locate itself, its territory, predators, new potential mates, and more.

Are Elephant Snails Tank and Reef Safe?

To a certain extent, yes, the elephant snail is a reef safe species; but they are rather large family of snails, capable of growing to a decent size. Because of this, the large shell and somewhat clumsy gastropod may cause accidental bump-and-crash damage on delicate or little and delicate reefs and corals in a tank.

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Are Elephant Snails Coral Safe?

Some tank owners have noted their snail(s) eating a few types of coral, including a pink Pocillopora. If you have that type of coral in your tank, it might be wise to reconsider adding a new elephant snail.

Are Elephant Snails Nocturnal?

In their native, wild habitat of coastal Tasmania and Australia, elephant snails lead a relatively nocturnal lifestyle. They prefer to feed at night, staying hidden under rocks during the day.

Being black and large in size, it is easier for them to make themselves hard to see in the black of night, using the white, shield-shaped shell for protection.

During the day, this snail would often become prey to flying predators as well as a host of land and water predators. The black coloration of the foot and shells would be easy to see against the white/pale-colored sand and clear waters.

By staying hidden in the rock, the snail can avoid getting eaten.

Are Elephant Snails Nocturnal in a Tank?

In a tank, it is likely the case that an elephant snail would follow the same pattern, although some owners have told stories of theirs being active both day and night.

Elephant snails are food motivated. The more algae and food there is to be found in the tank, the more inclined they’ll be to come out of their rock hiding spots.

Can You Buy Elephant Snails?

Some aquarium hobbyists have found this sea snail as hitchhikers on new live rock and similar, but you can also buy them in some places online. They do appear to be somewhat difficult to get hold of, however.