Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hail the Snail

by Lee Waites

Recently the tulotoma snail, native to the Alabama and Coosa Rivers, was promoted from the "endangered" list all the way up to merely "threatened." The tulotoma snail was formerly known as the Alabama live-bearing snail because it bears live young as opposed to laying an egg sack. It is found only in Alabama.

Dredging of the Alabama River, beginning in the 1880s, started the change in the snails' habitat. Then the addition of locks and dams used for hydropower and navigation further impounded the snail population, cutting groups of snails off from one another and changing the structure of their environment. The dams and locks also reduced the flow of water affecting oxygenation, silt content, and other factors that are required by the snail to thrive.

Over-silting and increased water temperature, both affected by damming, are a problem for the snails, who like a fast moving, cool environment. That's why we at the Birmingham Free Press can identify with them . . . So do we.

On the historic day of January 8, 1991, at 8:45 AM, at once celebrated and mourned by all tulotoma snail lovers, and all tulotoma snails, the report was filed. Bruce Blanchard of the US Fish and Wildlife Service filed the report in the Federal Register, placing the snails into the endangered category.

Who cares, right? It's snails. We need our motor boats and hydro-electric power. Archeological finds suggest that Native Americans valued the ornate shells of the tulotoma for trade. Where’s the use in that? Of course we now understand that true value lies in shiny metals, green paper, and plastic cards.

So why value a snail? Many an educated, caring, and knowledgeable person might smirk at this question. I'm not talking to you!

If, in your mind, there is any question that the actions of humans affect wildlife then you need look no further than these tiny snails. "Why this tone?" one might ask. Well, people have been trying to explain to other people how the world works for as long as we have been talking, and probably before that. We have heretofore failed with many. So I'm keeping it simple. Everything on this planet has a purpose. Don't be stupid.
Snails eat little floating things in the water, by sifting. Then things eat snails. Then them things get et’ by other things, and so on and so forth. It's lots of things—snails, frogs, fish, bees. It's called nature. And it's called eatin'. That's a big part of livin'. We all need to eat. Each one of these things is getting killed by some different human activity. Humans are locked up in the chain too. If you require a selfish answer, it will eventually affect you . . . but for now, let’s keep it simple; it's snails.

To illustrate how sensitive the environment can be, the small thing that helped the tulotoma snail inch back into the "threatened" category was a slight adjustment to the flow rates at several Alabama Power dams. This returned the water to a more hospitable environment for the snails. Thus they began to repopulate the areas where these adjustments were made.

Effective July 5, 2011 the USFWS has determined that the tulotoma snail can once again be classified as merely "threatened."

Congratulations to Alabama Power, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alabama Clean Water Partnership, the Man who turns the Knob in the Dam, and most of all, the many tulotoma snails who snuggle on the bottom of their rocks in the fast moving water, smiling with hope for a better future. Everything is OK now.

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