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Snail Hunting in the Adirondacks

Crew at AEC searches out link between calcium, snails

By Annie Woods

The mere thought of hunting a snail seems silly, for they are famously known for their, well, snail's pace. Last summer, however, I did just that, embarking on a snail-finding journey across the Adirondack Park with research technicians Maxwell Wightman and Corrie Blodgett. We were working with Dr. Colin Beier, an AEC ecologist, on a research project investigating the role of calcium in maintaining biodiversity in an acidified landscape (see Spruce Moose, Spring 2009, pg. 3). We learned quickly that to find snails in the forest, you must look closely, and once you do, you can find more than 500 snails in a single square meter!

A necessary component of a snail's diet, calcium is used for shell development and maintenance, reproduction, and other physiological processes. Snails consume calcium found in living and dead plant materials, invertebrates, and other animals, sometimes including other snails. Also, they can ingest calcium in small soil particles by rasping mineral-rich rocks using their radula, a sand-paper-like mouthpart. Snails pass calcium through the food chain, as they are consumed by a number of animals including salamanders, birds, and small mammals.

Our research this past summer focused on investigating snails (as well as vegetation and salamanders) at 12 sites across the Adirondacks, with varying calcium levels in the uppermost soil layers. Two of these sites were on the Huntington Wildlife Forest near Ackerman Clearing in the Archer Creek Watershed. One site, dubbed HWF14, had the highest level of calcium among all 12 of our sites and three to four times the amount of the other site, HWF15. HWF15 was ranked sixth out of the 12 sites we were investigating, in terms of calcium.

To find snails, we employed two methods: timed searches and extraction from leaf litter. During the timed searches, we looked for medium- to large-sized snails on rocks, trees, logs and the ground within a 10x10-meter area. Additionally, from each site, we collected one square meter of leaf litter, which we later processed to extract the tiny snails that dwell in the litter layer. Some snails were less than 1 mm wide, hardly visible to the naked eye! We dried and sieved each litter sample, then used magnifying visors to detect snails and later identify them. From all 12 sites, we collected 2,672 snails belonging to 28 species.

Preliminary results indicate a link between snails and available calcium. At the two sites on HWF, we found 393 snails - two-thirds from HWF14 and one-third from HWF15. Even though these sites were only 200 meters apart, they differed in their species composition. At HWF14, we found four types of snails that were absent from site HWF15. At HWF15, we found a few snails that were absent from HWF14. Both sites contained species of several families. For example, the small spot (Punctum minutissimum) was present at both sites. It is a tiny golden-brown snail no wider than 1.5 mm that lives in the leaf litter. Its numbers often correspond to the amount of available nutrient calcium, and as expected, we found 174 small spots at HWF14 and only 38 at HWF15.

Our work this summer was funded by the U.S. Forest Service Northeastern States Research Cooperative. We also benefited from the assistance of Ken Hotopp, an alumnus of Huntington Wildlife Forest (wildlife crew 1980-81). Ken has a consulting firm, Appalachian Conservation Biology, and specializes in rare and little-known land snails and slugs. Snail identification would have been nearly impossible without an advance copy of the "Field Guide to the Land Snails of New York State" by Hotopp and Tim Pearce of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and illustrated by Kathy Schmidt of Hudsonia. Results of this state Biodiversity Research Institute project should be available soon.

Annie Woods (EFB '07) was a senior research support specialist and educator at AEC.