One man’s mission to save a magnificent mollusk

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As Hurricane Fran blasted North Carolina’s coast in 1996, one man braved the flood waters to save a small yet magnificent snail from washing away. Andy Wood rushed out into the storm to collect as many magnificent ramshorn (Planorbella magnifica) from the refuge he had built in his backyard—the last place on earth the rare snail was known to exist at the time. Wood made it back indoors with 25 snails and dumped them into his son’s bedroom aquarium. Only 12 survived the event, leaving a handful of specimens to rebuild the species’ last population.

This rare snail, not to be confused with its common relative found in pet shops, was on the brink of extinction – pushed out of its natural habitat by the loss of its freshwater habitat from intrusion of saltwater and loss of beaver ponds. Wood knew the species was in trouble and, over the years, his interest in the snail’s plight has grown into a life-long passion for saving the species.

“If it is truly extinct in the wild, the only reason it’s around is because of my work,” Wood said. “That’s pretty cool.”

The magnificent ramshorn is North America’s largest air-breathing freshwater snail. Its brown coiled shell resembles a ram’s horn and grows to the size and weight of a dollar coin. The snail is adapted to still or slow-flowing aquatic habitats, where it eats submerged aquatic plants, algae, and detritus. While small and seemingly insignificant, this snail is an integral part of a complex food web found in freshwater swamps along coastal North Carolina.

The magnificent ramshorn was first described in 1903 by Henry Pilsbry, a prolific naturalist. The snail is found only in southeastern North Carolina. According to Bill Adams, formerly a biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the snail was likely once common throughout the lower Cape Fear River basin, especially in the numerous antebellum rice plantations, when the river was still shallow and fresh nearly to its mouth. The snail disappeared from the Cape Fear area after the river was dredged to make passage for big ships in the early 1930s. Tidal fluctuations in the lower Cape Fear changed from several inches to over four feet. As the lower river was manipulated, salt water flowed farther upriver.

And salt is the one thing the snails cannot tolerate. The snails were forced to retreat into the upper reaches of creeks and into ponds and lakes.

Back in the mid-1980s, Bill Adams knew the snail was in dire straits. He attempted to keep them in captivity, but with little success. Adams called on Wood, then education curator for the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, who had access to fish tanks, filters, food, and other necessities to keep these aquatic critters alive.

Andy Wood amidst the snail oasis he created in his backyard.

Wood also had something else: an affinity for small creatures and a passion for conservation. Coming from a long line of biologists, Wood grew up turning rocks in search of snakes, toads, and bugs. He devoted himself to teaching others about the natural world through a nature commentary on the local public radio station and as education director of the North Carolina Audubon Society. He recently created a nonprofit, the Coastal Plain Conservation Group (CPCG), which provides community-scale ecosystem research, conservation education, and habitat management services to benefit at-risk species in and around southeastern North Carolina.

Wood’s first attempt at keeping the snails in captivity nearly ended in disaster. He put some snails in a fish tank at the aquarium. While the water was fresh, clean and thoroughly filtered, the salty air from inside the marine aquarium was reason enough for concern. After two weeks, the snails responded to the salty air by withdrawing into their shells and falling to the bottom. Wood rescued them and took them to his home, using his son’s wading pool as a refuge for the snails.

Coastal Plain Conservation Group staff, Andy Wood and Carson Wood, searching for magnificent ramshorn snails in their wild habitat, freshwater cypress-gum swamps.

What has evolved since then is what Wood calls his “magnificent obsession.” Using his own financial resources, and with the support of his family, he has created a snail oasis, now consisting of several 300-gallon tank ecosystems. With dogged persistence, Wood has learned the intricacies of keeping magnificent ramshorns alive, and the snails are thriving by the thousands.

“I’m not sure I know why I’m so obsessed,” says Wood. “The snail is one of the rivets holding the planet together.”

While the snails began to flourish in the refuge Woods created for them, the wild population continued a slow and steady decline. A magnificent ramshorn has not been observed in the wild since 2004. It is now believed that the snail may only exist in captivity.

“It’s not the snail we should be talking about. It’s the swamps we should be talking about,” Wood said. “The snail is the Lorax. It’s saying we better do something.”

Wood’s persistence and passion continues to keep the species alive; he has shared his expertise and experience by helping set up additional captive populations at North Carolina State University and a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission fish hatchery.

In 2012, the magnificent ramshorn was added to the list of candidate species for Endangered Species Act protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) is working with CPCG, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners to implement conservation actions to prevent the need to list the species as federally as endangered or threatened. Finding the high-quality and salt-free habitat is a first step to securing the species’ future. Recruiting private landowners in the Wilmington area who are willing to carry out conservation actions to benefit the snail is a second essential step.

Federal grants may be available to help landowners shore up dams that protect ponds, providing safe homes for the snails and other valued species, and preserving the scenic appeal of cypress trees and water lilies that share their need for freshwater. Finding enough suitable ponds for the snails in the lower Cape Fear River basin is an urgent need. Biologists are optimistic that Endangered Species Act protection will not be necessary to ensure the species’ survival if enough suitable ponds are made available to the species and sustained into the future.

Story Tags

Aquatic animals
Endangered and/or Threatened species