Meet The Scientist On A Mission To Save The Snails

Nov 20, 2019

Snails are running out of time in Hawaii. Without intervention, 100 species will disappear in the next decade.

Guest

David Sischo, wildlife biologist with the Hawaii Invertebrate Program. He’s the Snail Extinction Prevention Program coordinator.

Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker staff writer. Author of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” (@ElizKolbert)

From The Reading List

National Geographic: “One famous snail’s death highlights the plight faced by diverse Hawaiian snails, of which there were once hundreds of species” — “The world’s loneliest snail is no more.

“George, a Hawaiian tree snail—and the last known member of the species Achatinella apexfulva—died on New Year’s Day. He was 14, which is quite old for a snail of his kind.

“George was born in a captive breeding facility at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in the early 2000s, and soon after, the rest of his kin died. That’s when he got his name—after Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise who was also the last of his kind.

“For over a decade, researchers searched in vain for another member of the species for George to mate with, to no avail. (Though these snails are hermaphrodites, two adults must mate to produce offspring, and researchers refer to George as a ‘he.’)”

Atlantic: “The Last of Its Kind” — “Sometime on new year’s day, as the people of Hawaii recovered from a night of revelry, in a trailer on the outskirts of Kailua, Oahu, a 14-year-old snail named George died. David Sischo, who works in the trailer but was taking a rare day off, found out at 7 o’clock the next morning, when a colleague discovered George’s limp body and texted him. ‘I usually don’t hear from her that early, so before I even read the text, I felt that something bad had happened,’ Sischo told me.

“Few people would mourn a snail, but Sischo and his team had spent years caring for George. He was a daily constant, a familiar friend. He was also the last known snail of his kind, the final Achatinella apexfulva. It is said that everyone dies alone, but that was doubly true for George—alone at the end both in his cage and in the world.

“When the last of a species disappears, it usually does so unnoticed, somewhere in the wild. Only later, when repeated searches come up empty, will researchers reluctantly acknowledge that the species must be extinct. But in rare cases like George’s, when people are caring for an animal’s last known representative, extinction—an often abstract concept—becomes painfully concrete. It happens on their watch, in real time. It leaves behind a body. When Sischo rang in the new year, Achatinella apexfulva existed. A day later, it did not. ‘It is happening right in front of our eyes,’ he said.”

DownToEarth: “This Hawaiian tree snail is the first extinction of 2019” — “A Hawaiian tree snail, who was an ‘Endling’, died on New Year’s Day 2019, making his species the first to be declared officially extinct in 2019.

“‘The DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife is sad to report that George, the last known Achatinella apexfulva, died on New Year’s Day 2019. According to David Sischo, wildlife biologist with the Hawaii Invertebrate Program, George was approximately 14 years old. Unfortunately, he is survived by none,’ the Hawaii DLNR (Department of Land and Natural Resources) said in a Facebook post on January 4 at 7:35 AM (local time).

“The DLNR further said that Achatinella apexfulva was the first of over 750 species of land snail from the Hawaiian Islands to be described by Western science. The first description came from a shell on a ‘lei’ (traditional garland used by indigenous Polynesian Hawaiians) given to British seaman, Captain George Dixon, while he docked on the island of O’ahu around 1787. ‘Apex fulva’, or ‘yellow tip’, was a trait that many of their kind displayed and is what they were named for.

“The snails, said the DNLR, were once widely distributed on O’ahu in the central-northern Ko’olau Mountains, and because they occurred in lower elevations, they were easily accessible and heavily used for making lei due to the beauty of their shells.”

Hawaii Magazine: “One Hawaiian Snail Dies, But the Conservation Effort Lives On” — “As is always the case in conservation, there’s good news—and there’s bad news. Let’s start with the bad. A Hawaiian tree snail named George, the last known member of the species Achatinella apexfulva, died on New Year’s Day. He was 14 and likely the last of his kind in the world. Researchers could never find a mate for him, thus he was nicknamed Lonesome George.

“But, around the time George died, something inspiring happened. In December 2018, 72 rare land snails reared at the Honolulu Zoo were released in a protected habitat in a remote part of the Waianae Mountains on Oahu, marking the first time this species, Amastra cylindrica, has returned to the wild.

“The species, a land snail found on Oahu and nowhere else in the world, was thought to have gone extinct in the wild in 2015. The state, in partnership with Bishop Museum and the Honolulu Zoo, have been successfully breeding them in captivity and are now releasing the offspring back into a protected mountainous habitat.

“The Honolulu Zoo got its first 10 snails to breed in 2017. Now, it has dozens of these tiny land snails, living in several plastic boxes that are kept in a cool, dark place in the back room of the new Ectotherm Complex, which opened in November 2017.”

The New Yorker: “Climate Change and the New Age of Extinction” — “The first documented extinction of 2019 occurred on New Year’s Day, with the death of a Hawaiian tree snail named George. George, who was about an inch long, had a grayish body, grayish tentacles, and a conical shell striped in beige and brown. He was born in captivity, in Honolulu, and had spent his unassuming life oozing around his terrarium, consuming fungi. Researchers with Hawaii’s forestry department had tried to find a partner for him—George was a hermaphrodite, but he needed a mate in order to reproduce—and when they couldn’t they concluded that he was the last of his kind, Achatinella apexfulva. A few days after he went, presumably gently, into that good night, the department posted a eulogy under the heading ‘farewell to a beloved snail . . . and a species.’ ‘Unfortunately, he is survived by none,’ it observed.

“George’s passing prompted a spate of headlines, and then, it seems safe to say, was forgotten. Americans have, by now, grown inured to ‘last of’ stories, which appear with the unsurprising regularity of seasonal dessert recipes. (George the snail was named for Lonesome George, a Pinta Island tortoise from the Galápagos, also the last of his kind, who died in 2012.) In February, the Australian government declared a ratlike creature known as the Bramble Cay melomys to be extinct. The melomys, found on a single low-lying island between Australia and Papua New Guinea, appears to have been done in by climate change, which has shrunk its habitat and brought ever more damaging flooding. Then, in April, Chinese state media reported that the last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle had died. ‘Her species might die with her,’ the Washington Post noted.

“Last week, an international group of scientists issued what the Times called ‘the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity.’ The findings were grim. On the order of a million species are now facing extinction, ‘many within decades.’ ‘What’s at stake here is a liveable world,’ Robert Watson, the chairman of the group, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, told Science.”

The New Yorker: “The Sixth Extinction?” — “The town of El Valle de Antón, in central Panama, sits in the middle of a volcanic crater formed about a million years ago. The crater is almost four miles across, but when the weather is clear you can see the jagged hills that surround the town, like the walls of a ruined tower. El Valle has one main street, a police station, and an open-air market that offers, in addition to the usual hats and embroidery, what must be the world’s largest selection of golden-frog figurines. There are golden frogs sitting on leaves and—more difficult to understand—golden frogs holding cell phones. There are golden frogs wearing frilly skirts, and golden frogs striking dance poses, and ashtrays featuring golden frogs smoking cigarettes through a holder, after the fashion of F.D.R. The golden frog, which is bright yellow with dark-brown splotches, is endemic to the area around El Valle. It is considered a lucky symbol in Panama—its image is often printed on lottery tickets—though it could just as easily serve as an emblem of disaster.

“In the early nineteen-nineties, an American graduate student named Karen Lips established a research site about two hundred miles west of El Valle, in the Talamanca Mountains, just over the border in Costa Rica. Lips was planning to study the local frogs, some of which, she later discovered, had never been identified. In order to get to the site, she had to drive two hours from the nearest town—the last part of the trip required tire chains—and then hike for an hour through the rain forest.

“Lips spent two years living in the mountains. ‘It was a wonderland,’ she recalled recently. Once she had collected enough data, she left to work on her dissertation. She returned a few months later, and though nothing seemed to have changed, she could hardly find any frogs. Lips couldn’t figure out what was happening. She collected all the dead frogs that she came across—there were only a half dozen or so—and sent their bodies to a veterinary pathologist in the United States. The pathologist was also baffled: the specimens, she told Lips, showed no signs of any known disease.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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