Tag Archives: chittenango falls

Snail Blazers! Creating a future for one of New York State’s tiniest residents

Imagine yourself in the mist zone of a waterfall.

You are surrounded by dense moss and vegetation and cascading dripping wet rocks.

IMG_6147

Chittenango Falls, USFWS

In Chittenango Falls State Park in upstate New York lives several hundred tiny, rare animals that evolved over 2 million years ago.

The Chittenango ovate amber snails are unique to the Empire State meaning you won’t find them anywhere else in the world!

This population is the only known living wild population of these snails at the edge of this waterfall in Chittenango Falls State Park.

The snail, affectionately referred to as “the Chit” or COAS is named for its home. They have a beautiful ovate, egg-shaped shell with amber coloring. The snails thrive in the mist zone of the waterfall, and feed on leaves of plants growing on nearby rocks and vegetation.

COAS

Up-close of a COAS in captivity. USFWS

For years, biologists feared that a single, catastrophic event such as a toxic spill, could wipe out the entire population of COAS.

This potential devastating truth almost happened after a huge rockslide into their habitat in 2006. This event prompted action and a collaborative partnership emerged between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, SUNY-ESF, the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo to breed and rear the COAS in captivity with intent to release individuals in to the wild.

IMG_6203

COAS length assessment to document health of the population. USFWS

In the summer season biologists and dedicated volunteers make regular trips to the falls site to complete a species survey and evaluate the health of the COAS population.

On the first of survey of the 2018 season a miraculous event occurred.

Not only were 42 captive reared COAS released in to the wild, but a COAS that was bred in captivity and released last year was found.

IMG_6216

Here is “white 14” the COAS that was captive reared and released last year. USFWS

This finding is monumental!

This means that individual not only was able to find food and support itself, but was able to overwinter successfully. This is so important as it reinforces the captive rearing techniques being refined at SUNY-ESF and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

Some people ask, “Why put all this effort in to protecting a snail?” “What would happen if we just let it go extinct?”

The answer to those questions is we don’t really know, but all species have a role.

In addition, as a federally listed species, the public has entrusted the Service with responsibilities towards recovering the COAS.

The COAS has many champions forging ahead to conserve and protect them. It all stems from a cooperative effort to looking to prevent extinction and maintain a successful wild population one snail at a time.

IMG_6227

Captive reared, released, and re-captured “white 14”  with USFWS biologist Robyn Niver. USFWS

 

 

 

What a big flood means for a little snail at Chittenango Falls

AlyssaM

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.

IMG_0562

A Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail, or “Chit,” the size of a thumbnail. Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

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.

Flooded vs Normal Falls

(Left) Flooding at the falls on July 1st, Photo: Matthew Sterritt. (Right) the falls on July 6th, Photo: Alyssa Martinez

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.

Falls with Endangered Spec signs

Debris pushed through fencing from flooding. Photo: Alyssa Martinez

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.

COAS

Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

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.

Today you're hearing from Cody Gilbertson, graduate research assistant at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Photo courtesy of Cody.

Need to slow down your fast-paced life for a moment?

Today you're hearing from Cody Gilbertson, graduate research assistant at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Photo courtesy of Cody.

Today you’re hearing from Cody Gilbertson, graduate research assistant at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Photo courtesy of Cody.

Try watching a snail. Seriously, it’s quite calming.

They glide along and seem to know exactly where they are going. They are curious creatures. If you can convince yourself to lean in close and listen very carefully when they’re eating, you may actually even hear them munching away.

A curious Chittenango ovate amber snail. Credit: Cody Gilbertson

A curious Chittenango ovate amber snail. Credit: Cody Gilbertson

I’ve been working with and watching snails since 2010 now. If you weren’t before, I’m sure your fascinated now, right?

Let me expand: I work in New York with one of the world’s rarest critters, and it is in fact a small land snail. This thumbnail-sized snail, the Chittenango ovate amber snail, is quite famous in the wildlife world. Across the globe, it is found in just a single location: Chittenango Falls State Park.

At the base of a waterfall 167 feet in height, this unique species goes about its business living among rocky ledges and lush vegetation.

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. Credit: Cody Gilbertson

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. Credit: Cody Gilbertson

For my graduate research at the State University of New York, I am trying to put myself in the snail’s shoe so to speak (did you know snails have just one foot?) to figure out what is necessary for survival.

What do they eat? What conditions do they need to survive? How the heck do they live through upstate New York winters?

A BABY SNAIL. It only looks horrifyingly large because it's under a microscope. Credit: Cody Gilbertson

A BABY SNAIL. It only looks horrifyingly large because it’s under a microscope. Credit: Cody Gilbertson

I am researching methods to increase this snail’s overall numbers with a goal to help stabilize their population and create a template for other conservation efforts for land snail species. We hope to breed them in captivity, and have successfully bred a surrogate snail species within the same family as the endangered snail (roughly 3,000 hatchlings! Check out the baby snail pictures). I am also looking into how many other snail species live in isolated populations within New York State.

Not many people slow down to examine the small beings on earth. Some may be almost invisible, but they all play big parts in our world. So next time you’re feeling rushed in life, take a moment to watch a snail. You’d be amazed at the calm steady creature before you!

And another baby snail. Now you can tell how tiny they really are. This little guy was born in captivity. A BABY SNAIL. It only looks horrifyingly large because it's under a microscope. Credit: Cody Gilbertson

And another baby snail. Now you can tell how tiny they really are. This little guy was born in captivity. Credit: Cody Gilbertson