Friday, August 8, 2008

A whale of a snail

Most people don't think of snails as being endangered, particularly if they are battling them as they eat through their Swiss chard patch. But Woodland Park Zoo is helping a species of Tahitian tree snail back into their rightful place. The Partula snail used to be represented by around 100 different species in the islands of French Polynesia. But thanks to (or no thanks, in this case) an invasive, and carnivorous, snail, Partula were reduced to about five species in less than 10 years in the 1980s, and only remnant survivors of those few remaining populations. Thankfully, scientists recognized what was happening and rescued about 17 species before they disappeared. Our zoo has been the U.S. hub at captive breeding efforts for one of these species, Partula nodosa, and currently has more than 900 of these half-inch long critters behind the scenes in Bug World.

A rarity in the snail world, Partula give live birth to a single offspring every 4-6 weeks, as opposed to a typical brown garden snail that lays hundreds of eggs each year (in fact, Partula or Parca is the Roman goddess of live childbirth). Slo-o-o-w growers (sorry for the pun!), they can live up to around 5 to 6 years.

Plans are underway to reintroduce P. nodosa back to Tahiti in the next couple of years in what is being billed as the world's smallest wildlife preserve: an approximately 20 meter square protected site that will contain the released specimen. The first step is shipping some of our snails to London's (U.K.) Imperial College for a study to ensure the viability of the snails and to make sure that no nasty pathogens or parasites would be released with them (you always want to make sure that you're not releasing something worse than what originally caused the problem in the first place!). So hopefully before September, a small number of our snails will be safely packed away and headed off on a flight to Heathrow.

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