Scientists from SUNY ESF made history today after releasing into the wild at Chittenango Falls State Park 200 endangered Chittenango ovate amber snails that were bred and grown in captivity. These rare, delicate snails, that measure about 1 millimeter in length when first hatched and grow up to 20 millimeters in length as adults, can be found in only one place on Earth — alongside this Central New York waterfall.
And until today, there were only about 300 of them in the wild.
“This is a pretty exciting event — it’s pretty rare in the scientific world to get to reintroduce snails into the wild,” said Dr. Rebecca Rundell, a SUNY ESF professor who has been working on this project for many years. “This is the first time we’ve been able to do something like this. We’ll keep monitoring them for years and see if this helped increase the population.”
Rundell, her graduate student Cody Gilbertson who has been taking a lead on the snail project, and officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation trekked into Chittenango Falls State Park on Thursday evening, Oct. 1, to release these lab-grown snails back into nature. The snails thrive in the spray zone of the waterfall, a moist and mild environment, and they feed on microscopic fungi and detritus on the nearby rocks and vegetation. The species, discovered in 1905, is named for its home and its opaque, egg-shaped, amber-colored shell.
There is only an estimated population of 300 Chittenango ovate amber snails currently living in the wild near Chittenango Falls, which has led to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to classify them as an “endangered” species, while the federal DEC lists them as “threatened.”
Biologists have feared that a single catastrophic event could wipe out the entire population. In fact, the estimated population size fell in 2006 after a rockslide occurred in the snails’ habitat. The goal for these efforts is to boost the population.
To address this threat, Gilbertson has worked to establish a captive breeding population in an ESF laboratory for the past five years.
“It has been important for us to understand what the Chittenango ovate amber snail needs for long-term survival,” Gilbertson said. “We have studied their habitat and simulated the conditions in the lab for an optimal rearing environment. This backup population can supplement their wild population and prevent extinction in case of an unplanned, destructive event such as a storm, rockslide or drought.”
Gilbertson said it took her years of research just to find what the snails would eat in captivity — “They eat sugar maple leaves collected in the spring, not leaves collected in the fall,” she said.
“We call Cody the ‘snail whisperer,’” Rundell said. “She raised them from eggs into full-sized snails.”
Rundell said one interesting thing about the snails is that they are all hermaphrodites — meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs — and when they mate they fertilize one another. “Their eggs look like beautiful little crystal grapes,” she said. “The babies have big eyes and tiny shells; they’re very cute.”
There are now more than 600 baby snails that have been hatched in the SUNY ESF lab.
“The work being done through this project is greatly refining our understanding of how this animal lives and what its needs are for successful management of its habitat,” said DEC Wildlife Biologist Kathleen O’Brien. “This may be important not only for the COAS in New York but for preservation of other rare species of snails in trouble across the globe.”
Of the 200 Chittenango ovate amber snails released last week, some of the snails have grown large enough to be tagged (which requires tweezers to accomplish) but the rest are still tiny, Gilbertson said.
“We’ve been waiting for this day for nine years,” said Robyn Niver, USFWS endangered species biologist. “When people think of rare and endangered species they think of wolves and eagles, which is great, but to have something in New York so rare and fragile, and that we can actually make a difference with is pretty cool.”
Tom Hughes, a biologist with the state office of parks and recreation, agreed. “Statewide, these are some of the rarest, most important species, and it is exciting and a treasure to have this significant species in our backyard,” he said. “It’s a very delicate system on a very small piece of real estate.”
The Chittenango ovate amber snail lives in the spray zone of the Chittenango waterfall, a moist and mild environment, and they feed on microscopic fungi and detritus on the nearby rocks and vegetation. But how do they survive the winter, especially when the waterfall is completely frozen? According to graduate student Cody Gilbertson, they go dormant. “It’s called estivating. They seal themselves up, shut themselves down and conserve the water that way. As temperatures warm up they start to warm up as well and go back to regular activity. It’s very surprising they could survive the upstate New York winters,” she said.
While the snails may be small and may seem insignificant, they are an important part of the natural cycle of life and of their ecosystem, Gilbertson said. “They are important in nutrient cycling. They break down dead leaves and turn them back into soil. Without things invertebrates breaking down leaf matter, that matter would build up and we wouldn’t have any new soil,” she said.
In addition to releasing these 200 into the wild, Gilbertson said SUNY ESF will continue to keep a colony of snails in their laboratory, while both the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse and the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester have agreed to take on some snail colonies as well, all in an effort to keep the population of this rare creature steady and viable.