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Mollusks run through it

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Dear HCN,


Thanks for running Guy Webster's item on the Kanab ambersnail (HCN, 7/31/00: The snail that stands like a dam). All too often "endangered species' are pegged as furry, feathered or scaly. There are lots more, all parts of the big story, like the ambersnail. And it's amazing just how much mileage scientists have gotten from the discovery of this little snail in the Grand Canyon. Guy only portrayed the proverbial iceberg tip.


Science works in funny ways sometimes. No one knew the snail was in the canyon until just nine years ago. In fact, the genus to which it belongs, Oxyloma, wasn't even known to live in Arizona. All the more, the first specimens collected at Vasey's Paradise in Grand Canyon weren't recognized as ambersnails right away. I know, because I'm the one who made that first collection in the canyon, in 1991.


Mollusks aren't terribly sexy, so they aren't studied by too many biologists. Virtually nothing was known about them in the Colorado River corridor through Grand Canyon. The biggest collection anywhere of mollusks from the canyon is in a museum in Philadelphia, mostly collected in 1906 and 1910; but there's nothing from the river corridor.


So in 1991, I went along on one of the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies research trips studying the effects of flows from Glen Canyon Dam. I prospected for snails. One of the "grab bags' was from Vasey's Paradise; included among hundreds of specimens were a few ambersnails. But the ambersnail can be mistaken for another kind of land snail called Catinella, so it wasn't real obvious at first - especially since the ambersnail wasn't supposed to be in Arizona.


Back in Philadelphia, a colleague, Art Bogan, looked at the anatomy of my snails in the grab bag from Vasey's. Right away we knew something was up, and one thing led to another. Guy Webster's article about transplanting new populations out of harm's way is the latest chapter in a long mission of Saving Our Snails. Hardly a silly exercise, it's one purpose of the Endangered Species Act: to stabilize the well-being of endangered and threatened organisms, to the point that their names can be removed from the endangered lists.


The Kanab ambersnail hangs by a thread on private land in Utah and in a tiny, pristine locale in Grand Canyon, and nowhere else. We as an environmentally conscious citizenry are obligated to address the matter.


Earle Spamer
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


The writer works for the Academy of Natural Sciences, where, for many years, he was in the Department of Malacology (the study of mollusks).

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