To Search for a Near-Extinct Snail, Tread Lightly

Monitoring the last wild Chittenango ovate amber snails, scientists tiptoe through a waterfall spray zone the size of a living room. From a report: The Chittenango Creek, which runs north for about 30 twisting miles in central New York, has few distinguishing markers: The stream is generally only a couple of feet deep, and the towns it passes through are similarly small and overlooked. One exception is found a couple miles from the source of the creek, where the riverbed flattens out and drops 167 feet over a series of limestone cliffs that are segmented into ledges and still smaller rock shelves. The fractal qualities are magnified by the foaming water that tumbles in thin layers down the cliffs. On some mornings, sunlight from the southeast illuminates the mist, and the whole area glows. Around this time on a recent Thursday, a dozen people clustered on one side of the falls, along two ledges that were blanketed in snakeroot, yellow jewelweed, spotted Joe-Pye weed and pale swallowwort. Here, in an area about the size of a living room, is the only known habitat of a small, critically endangered invertebrate with a marbled spiral shell: the Chittenango ovate amber snail.

A thousand species of land snail worldwide are known to be at risk of extinction. Most have very specific needs and a limited geological range, so scientists have been studying their populations to understand how changes in the environment could affect biodiversity more broadly. “Land snails are apt to be the real canaries in the coal mine for these sorts of changes,” said Rebecca Rundell, a biologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Dr. Rundell is conducting such research on endangered land snails in the Republic of Palau, and similar projects are underway in such far-flung places as Hawaii and Bermuda. But the same issues are at play in her backyard, with the “Chits,” which can only flourish in nearly 100 percent humidity and the shade of deciduous forests. “The conservation status of our local snail is emblematic of what is happening to land snails globally,” she said. And so Dr. Rundell’s team, with volunteers and employees from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, gathered on the side of the waterfall, their feet and knees planted cautiously but firmly on rocks, and sifted gently through the dirt and roots. Their goal: to figure out how many of these snails remain in the wild without crushing any in the process.

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