Since Ice Age glaciers retreated from New York nearly 12,000 years ago, a snail slightly larger than a dime has lived in damp, shaded and rocky terrain at the base of a towering waterfall in Madison County.
A moist and mild micro-habitat, the “splash zone” around the namesake 167-foot cascade at Chittenango Falls State Park is the last wild place on earth where the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail is known to exist. The species is named for its home; its ovate, egg-shaped shell; and its amber coloring.
This delicate mollusk leads a precarious existence, as a population now estimated at less than a hundred faces threats from floods, droughts, rockslides, another species of snail, climate change, and even the feet of irresponsible hikers.
The snail was abundant when it was first discovered at the falls in 1905. By the early 1980s, the population was estimated at less than 500 individuals, and the population continued to plummet in the 1990s. The snail is listed as an endangered species by New York State and a threatened species by the federal government. Historically, the species was found in a handful of sites from Tennessee to Ontario, Canada, but now is known to only exist in New York.
To fend off potential extinction of what is affectionately known as the “chitt,” a captive breeding program started five years ago, supported by State Parks, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse. Federal funding to support the program has come from the Great Lake Restoration Initiative.
Banding together on Facebook as the “Snailblazers,” these partners recently added another friend of the chitt – the Critz Farms brewery in Madison County, which has crafted an IPA dedicated to raise funds for the breeding program.
With each leisurely sip of the Endangered Species IPA, described as a “delightfully citrusy, medium-bodied beer,” funds go toward supporting a snail incubator program at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse and the hand collection of a mix of native plant leaves that form the diet of the finicky snail.
Since the program started, nearly 2,000 snails have been propagated in climate-controlled incubators at both SUNY-ESF and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, said Cody Gilbertson, senior research support specialist at SUNY-ESF. Due to COVID restrictions this year, the zoo incubator program was consolidated into SUNY-ESF.
Of the captive-bred chitts, slightly more than 400 have been released into the park during this time, some as hatchlings and the rest as adults capable of reproduction. Even with these efforts, the snails are barely hanging onto their foothold.
About 500 snails reside in the incubators currently, protected as a “backup” population should some dire circumstances extinguish the Chittenango snails. Hundreds of snails have already lived their entire natural life spans – about two years – in the incubators.
When breeding started, there was an estimated population at the falls of about 350 snails, said Gilbertson. The most recent counts are now at about 100.
The habitat zone, a mix of boulders that have fallen from the limestone cliffs, is consistently moist from the mist of the falls. That nurtures water-loving plants, including a number of native wildflowers, including the snail’s favorite, Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), said Delaney Kalsman, project coordinator at State Parks.
Located along the park’s Gorge Trail, this area is fenced off and marked against trespassing. Anyone entering the area without authorization can be prosecuted under New York State Environmental Conservation Law and the federal Endangered Species Act.
Another count of the snail population is set for the summer of 2021, said Kalsman. The number of snails has been declining in recent years, with possible explanations including competition from a species of invasive snail and climate change.
“The environment is experiencing longer drought periods, reducing the flow and spray of the falls which the snail relies on,” she said. “When it does rain, large flooding events are happening at greater frequencies. In 2017, a major flood washed away large portions of Joe-Pye weed.”
Within such a small home, a potential extinction-level event can show up quickly. Such events like the 2017 flood, along with the other threats, put the chitt as “severe threat of extinction,” Gilbertson said. “This threat is further amplified because the entire wild population exists only at Chittenango Falls State Park.”
To propagate more snails, Gilbertson needed to understand what they ate from the flora and fauna around the falls. She learned the snails preferred the fallen leaves of black cherry trees collected in early spring, as well as leaves from pignut hickory, sugar maple and ash. And snails needed certain species of leaves at certain times, and at certain stages of decomposition. So, SUNY-ESF and Parks staff needed to collect leaves regularly and maintain a kind of “compost” menu for the snails. The leaves are stored dry and then rehydrated as needed.
“This diet for our snails is more natural than a synthetic paste or vegetables that is used in many other captive invertebrate programs. Survival was boosted by this natural diet,” she said.
State Parks staff is now designing a “garden” of native trees and plants in the park to supply the optimal forage that can be brought to the snails, as part of the efforts spearheaded by Kalsman, park Operations Manager Shawn Jenkins, and SUNY-ESF FORCES (Friends of Recreation, Conservation and Environmental Stewardship) stewards Jordan Stransky, Sarah Petty, and David Rojek.
(And for the curious: Snails have a form of teeth, called “radula,” which is Latin for “little scraper.” The radula is a tongue-like ribbon with raised rasps, which the snail uses to scrape and tear away at whatever plant they are eating.)
Another issue to consider is that of a potential lack of genetic diversity, which could make the snails vulnerable to disease. To avoid having the captive offspring breeding only with other captive offspring, researchers periodically gather snails from the falls to be brought into the captive program.
Called “pulsing,” this method “brings new founders from the wild to breed and introduce hypothetically new genetic lines into our captive population,” Gilbertson said.
Snails mate between May and July, resulting in the female laying about a dozen tiny eggs. Each summer, about 200 to 300 snails are reared from those eggs. The hatchlings are so tiny that the safest way for researchers to move them around is by using paintbrushes, she said. The tiny creatures use their “foot,” a muscle that contracts to allow the snail to move, to grasp the bristles on the brush.
Each year, researchers bring more captive-bred snails to the falls to live and breed with the snails there. And this tiny population continues for another day, aided by the work of dedicated people at State Parks, other partners and now brewers and patrons of a farm-brewed IPA.
(Cover Photo- Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. Photo Credit- Cody Gilbertson, SUNY – ESF)
Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks
Read a five-year scientific review of the status of the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW).
Discover more about the snail from USFW.
Learn more about the snail in a online book for children created by staffers at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.
Donate to the zoo’s snail conservation program.