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Protecting New York's Thumbnail-sized Snail
by Meagan Racey
Photo Credit: USFWS
In central New York, in the mist where Chittenango Falls cascades over million-year-old bedrock, creep several hundred tiny, rare animals that evolved over 2 million years ago.
Chittenango ovate amber snails (Succinea chittenangoensis) are unique to the Empire State—you won't find them anywhere else in the world. While similar fossil shells have been found as far north as Ontario, Canada and as far west as Tennessee and Iowa, the only known living population of these small snails is at the edge of this waterfall in Chittenango Falls State Park.
The snail, which some biologists affectionately refer to as "the Chit," is named for its home; its ovate, egg-shaped shell; and its amber coloring. The snails thrive in the spray zone of the waterfall, a moist and mild environment, and they feed on microscopic plants growing on nearby rocks and vegetation.
For years, biologists feared that a single, catastrophic event such as a toxic spill, could wipe out the entire population of Chittenango ovate amber snails.
"Anything that goes wrong at this one location affects the entire species," says Robyn Niver, a biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's New York Field Office. "For example, in 2006, after some high rain events, a large section of rock came loose from the surrounding cliff and fell right into the snail's habitat."
To prepare for that possibility, several partners have teamed up to keep an eye on the population size and to protect some snails in captivity. Every two weeks, from May to September, a group of volunteers combs sections of the cliff for snails, tagging them with bee tags (small tags used to identify and track individuals), and then returning them to the same spot.
Photo Credit: USFWS
Volunteers include Service personnel; state agency staff; students, faculty, and staff from nearby colleges and zoos; and even members of the local community.
"It's a great cooperative effort," says Joseph Brown, a zookeeper at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse that has worked on these surveys for nearly 10 years. "Any time we speak at rotary clubs or to local groups, people are excited and enthusiastic and interested in the project. It's great as a flagship species locally and throughout New York to raise the banner for invertebrates."
Population estimates range from about 260 snails in 2002 and around 780 in 2005—an encouraging increase. Following the 2006 rockslide, however, the population declined to 550 in 2007 and 340 in 2009. Biologists hope the 2012 surveys will show a stable or increasing population.
Photo Credit: USFWS
Between surveying efforts and captive breeding programs, the team has learned a lot about this snail—from its ability to reproduce in captivity to the number of eggs produced per snail.
Still, there are many unknowns: Can the other side of the falls support a population? Did the Chit once exist at another nearby falls?
"We're going to investigate whether the conditions on the other side of the falls are actually similar, and so we could possibly move some Chits over to the other ledge on the other side," says Niver. "Another thing that we're considering is just boosting population numbers right at the one location. And then, finally, we're thinking about maintaining some populations within zoos so that we have a refugium in case something were to happen in the wild."
According to Brown, whose days are devoted to keeping the zoo animals fed, clean, healthy, and happy, the most difficult aspect of being a zookeeper is the death of any of his animals—even if it is one as small and nondescript as the Chit.
"If you didn't do anything and let the snail go extinct, is that catastrophic to the niche that it occupies?" says Brown. "We don't know how important it is to the mist zone in that falls habitat. Could it have an impact? We just don't know."
For the many New Yorkers that come out to volunteer, it is enough knowing that the Chit is part of their cultural and natural heritage—a fellow New Yorker.
Meagan Racey, a public affairs specialist in the Service's Northeast Regional Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-253-8558.
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