What a big flood means for a little snail at Chittenango Falls
Today, we are hearing from Alyssa Martinez, the summer outreach intern at the New York Field Office. Alyssa is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar through North Carolina State University where she is studying zoology. She brings a passion for environmental education and hopes to share her experiences in the field.
Located at Chittenango Falls, there are slimy, one-footed creatures with a mouth like a cheese grater. That would seem scary, except the creature is the size of a thumbnail and their “cheese grater” mouth, or radula, is for consuming plant matter. These strange critters are snails, more specifically, the Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. We like to call them the “Chit” for short.
These small native New Yorkers are found exclusively in the mist zones of Chittenango Falls. The entire population is impacted by what goes on in one small area of the falls. The Chits had a close call when near-disaster struck in 2006. Heavy rainfall caused a section of rock to break off from the cliff directly above the Chits, resulting in a sharp decline in their population. They are still recovering from this event, but the recent storm and accompanied flooding that rolled through at the start of this month resurfaced fears of losing this threatened species.
Five days after the flood, I joined a group of surveyors from NYS Parks, SUNY ESF, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, and the Service, to visit the falls on a routinely scheduled trip. Uncertain of the impact of the flooding, we set out to collect and monitor the snails. The damage was evident within the fenced off habitat. The high water separated several boards from the bridge across the creek and debris had been washed through the fencing that is intended to keep visitors a safe distance from trampling the small snails.
Trails were closed and areas were still partially flooded so we had to reroute around waterlogged vegetation using our best rock-hopping skills to get to the surveying area. When we finally arrived to start surveying, it appeared the flood may have washed away a portion of the snail’s habitat. In some areas, bare rock was exposed where there used to be lush vegetation growing. Despite the flooding impact, we still found Chits gliding around after taking shelter from the storm.
The resilient population has survived a rockslide in 2006, so another flood is not going to stop them now. Cody Gilbertson, who spearheads the snail surveys and cares for a captive colony of Chits at SUNY-ESF, estimates there are only about 300 individuals persisting in the wild. We will not know if the flood has left any major impacts on the population until enough population surveys have been completed.
Living exclusively in this small habitat leaves little room for misfortune for the threatened Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. The ongoing captive breeding efforts at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo and ESF will help biologists better understand the Chit’s life history and inform future management of their habitat. Captive Chits have previously been released to supplement the wild population and perhaps increase their overall population numbers.
Despite their vulnerability, the Chittenango ovate amber snails continue to slide along on their one foot, chewing up vegetation with their cheese-grater mouth with hope for the future knowing people give a “Chit” about them.