Will endangered status help this memorable-named North Carolina snail thrive again? | State and Area News


Martha Quillin The (Raleigh) News & Observer

Federal wildlife officials are seeking endangered status for a freshwater mollusc – the ‘magnificent ramshorn snail’ – that is native to southeastern North Carolina but has not been seen in the wild for nearly two decades.

Scientists also hope to have two sites in the state declared as “critical habitat” for the snail in hopes that it may one day be reintroduced into the wild.

The “magnificent ramshorn snail”, larger and rarer than the common ramshorn snail, currently only exists in captivity, in three locations:

  • At NC State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh.
  • In a hatchery managed by the National Wildlife Commission in Marion.
  • In a private residence near the coast.

Between them, the three sites have a total of about 1,000 snails, which are the largest air-breathing freshwater snails in North America.

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Originally in two ponds

All of these snails are descended from populations originally found in two ponds in Brunswick County. But they haven’t been found in these or the other two ponds, all in the Cape Fear River basin, where the snails are known to have existed, since 2004.

In a press release about efforts to have the snails declared endangered, the Fish & Wildlife Service said having the snails in captivity does not necessarily guarantee the survival of the species.

“A catastrophic event, such as a severe storm, disease or predator infestation, affecting captive populations could lead to the near extinction of the species,” the agency said in the statement.

The magnificent ramshorn snail is presumed extinct in the wild. Captive populations represent the only hope for the species, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lilibeth Serrano, US Fish and Wildlife Service

The US Fish and Wildlife Service says the four sites where the magnificent ramshorn snail was originally found were likely ponds created by ancient mill dams. They provided the perfect habitat for a creature with an inch-and-a-half shell that is intolerant of salt, needs a diverse and plentiful plant diet, and cannot survive in running water.

Wildlife experts say the magnificent ramshorn was likely found in the lower Cape Fear River basin, when most of the river was shallow and cool, and would have been particularly prevalent in rice plantations. When the river was dredged in the 1930s to allow freighters to enter, it caused increased tidal fluctuations, sending salt water further inland.

Over time, according to a Fish and Wildlife report, the snails’ habitat changed further and could no longer support them. Scientists say global warming and rising sea levels have increased saltwater intrusion into freshwater bodies, including through flooding resulting from hurricanes. According to the researchers, the removal of beaver dams across much of the river basin also eliminated ponds that might have harbored the snail.

According to the report, changes in water chemistry resulting from land development and pest control likely also damaged the snails’ habitat.

The magnificent ramshorn is already listed by the state as an endangered species, but the designation does not provide protection from accidental damage, injury, or death, and does not protect animal habitat except on state-owned land.

What endangered federal status would mean

Federal endangered status, scientists say, would allow for conservation efforts for both the snail and its natural habitat so it can recover and thrive.

Fish & Wildlife officials would like to work with the owner of Orton Pond, east of the town of Boiling Spring Lakes, and Big Pond, also known as Pleasant Oaks Pond. Both are in Brunswick County and are known as the ancient homes of the magnificent ramshorn.

Together they would provide approximately 739 acres of habitat at an expected cost of less than $21,000 per year, including administrative work and project modifications. The researchers are also investigating three other sites as possible places where the snails could be reintroduced, including Greenfield Lake, an ancient pond that was once home to the magnificent ramshorn. Greenfield Lake is the centerpiece of a Wilmington park, but the water is currently too polluted to support the snail.

The Fish and Wildlife Service invites the public to comment on the proposal through October 18 at https://www.regulations.gov.


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