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Near-Extinct Snail Coaxed into Reproduction at ESF

The endangered Chittenango ovate amber snail (COAS), found only in one location alongside a Central New York waterfall, has achieved a step crucial to its recovery: captive breeding in an ESF laboratory.

Called the "Chit" by those interested in its well being, the snail has been the subject of a collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other partners.

The snail survives exclusively alongside Chittenango Falls, about 22 miles southeast of Syracuse. Biologists have feared that a single catastrophic event could wipe out the entire population.

To address this threat, Cody Gilbertson, a graduate student working in the laboratory of Dr. Rebecca Rundell, has worked to establish a captive breeding population in an ESF laboratory. She is working in the Center for Integrated Teaching and Research (CIRTAS) in Illick Hall. Since early June, more than 600 baby snails have been hatched in the lab.

"It has been important for us to understand what the Chittenango ovate amber snail needs for long-term survival," Gilbertson said. "We have studied their habitat and simulated the conditions in the lab for an optimal rearing environment. This backup population can supplement their wild population and prevent extinction in case of an unplanned, destructive event such as a storm, rockslide, or drought."

Her work is part of an ongoing collaboration between the USFWS, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Seneca Park Zoo, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and ESF to protect the snail.

"The work being done through this project is greatly refining our understanding of how this animal lives and what its needs are for successful management of its habitat," said DEC Wildlife Biologist Kathleen O'Brien. "This may be important not only for the COAS in New York but for preservation of other rare species of snails in trouble across the globe."

Every year, these partners gather with volunteers to monitor the population. Estimated population size fell in 2006 after a rockslide occurred in the snails' habitat. The goal for these efforts is to boost the population. The snails thrive in the spray zone of the waterfall, a moist and mild environment, and they feed on microscopic fungi and detritus on the nearby rocks and vegetation. The species is named for its home and its opaque, egg-shaped, amber-colored shell.

"We've been working toward this since writing a revised recovery plan in 2006. This is a very exciting step in Chittenango ovate amber snail conservation," said Robyn Niver, USFWS endangered species biologist.