Can’t Live Without ‘Em: Tulotoma Snail

A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small.

Tulotoma snails have made an outstanding recovery.

TULOTOMA SNAIL (Tulotoma Magnifica)

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming this week to celebrate a big success story for a very small animal. Last week, Reuters reported that the Fish and Wildlife Service downlisted the Tulotoma snail from “endangered” to “threatened”. It is the first mollusk (a large phylum that includes clams and squids) ever to be removed from the federal Endangered Species List because of rebounding populations.

The Tulotoma snail is native to the Coosa and Alabama rivers where it was once thought to be extinct. In 1991, a small group of snails were found along a leaking dam in the Alabama River and the FWS placed the tiny gastropods (the class that includes snails and slugs) on the federal endangered species list.

Dams built along Alabama’s rivers have caused big environmental troubles. They prevent water flow necessary for carrying oxygen to underwater organisms. Due in part to these dams, Alabama is among the leaders in extinctions. According to the Reuters article, biologists say that some 59 species of state-native mollusks and fish are now extinct.

However, with the help of a dedicated conservation community, federal regulation, and the resilience of these little critters, the Tulotoma snail has escaped the fate of its many predecessors and been restored to about ten percent of its historic range—a dramatic increase from the one percent it previously occupied in 1991.

A big part of the recovery is attributed to the Clean Water act which implemented pollution control programs and set standards for industrial development. At the request of federal officials, the Alabama Power Company (which constructed dams in the snails’ habitat) began releasing steady flows of oxygenated water into the Coosa River which also helped spur the rebounding population.

WHAT GOOD ARE THEY?

It’s a good thing that the snails have returned. These 2-inch long mollusks with elegant swirls and polished shells do much more than decorate dams and river banks. The Tulotoma snail plays a huge role in cleaning up the environment. They are filter feeders that remove bacteria and algae from the surface waters. With all the pollutants that enter the rivers from natural and man-made waste, the water would be far more mucky and grimy without the snail and other species that sanitize these streams.

Additionally, the snail is an important food source for ducks, turtles, fish and other animals. Without the snails, these animals might leave the river in search of other food sources causing a further decline in the area’s biodiversity.

Thankfully, the slow snails are on a fast track to recovery. Although they’ve now been downlisted, the FWS says that many protections for the snail will remain. Threats such as chemical spills, population isolation and even simple changes in water quality must still be monitored. However, this success story should be a shining example of what local communities, government, and businesses can accomplish when dedicated to the goal of conservation.

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