Swarms of snails travel 3000 miles to preserve an endangered speciesin a remarkable shipment from a zoo in the north of England to the enchanting shores of Bermuda. Nestled within a wooden crate were 1,000 mature snails, accompanied by 2,000 youthful snails, all of them destined for a new home.
To ensure their safe passage, the delicate snails were meticulously arranged within the crate, surrounded by damp tissues that tenderly regulated the temperature throughout the duration of the seven-hour flight. Additionally, an in-flight meal of nourishing green beans was provided to sustain them on their journey.
Accompanied by ordinary cargo, the crate was adorned with a few carefully placed labels, denoting its invaluable and exceptional contents: "Live Animals," "This End Up," and "3,000 lesser Bermuda land snails." However, no outward indications were given to convey that these humble creatures, once released, possessed the potential to shape the destiny of an entire species.
The diminutive yet remarkable Lesser Bermuda land snails, as their name implies, have their roots embedded within the scenic archipelago of Bermuda in the North Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the past five decades have cast a shadow over their existence, as a series of perilous challenges have inflicted severe damage upon their populations. Presently, these remarkable creatures find themselves teetering on the brink of extinction, earning them the grave classification of critically endangered.
In a valiant endeavor to rescue this imperiled species from the clutches of oblivion, a pivotal act occurred in 2017. At that time, a precious contingent of 60 surviving individuals was entrusted to the capable hands of Gerardo Garcia, an esteemed guardian of cold-blooded species and the head of ectotherms at Chester Zoo. This conscientious initiative aimed to safeguard the Lesser Bermuda land snails from the precipice of vanishing forever, forging a glimmer of hope for their continued survival.
Drawing upon their profound expertise in nurturing small reptiles and invertebrates, Gerardo Garcia and his accomplished team embarked on a profound journey of understanding the dietary requirements and intricate breeding patterns of the enigmatic Lesser Bermuda land snails. With meticulous dedication, they delved into the depths of knowledge to unravel the secrets of this species.
Over the subsequent years, a remarkable transformation unfolded. These diminutive snails, comparable in size to a humble garden pea, began to thrive under the watchful care of Garcia and his team. Their careful efforts and astute insights yielded extraordinary results as the snails embarked on a journey of multiplication and growth, bestowing newfound hope upon the once-tenuous fate of the species.
“When we started the program with the Bermuda snails at the zoo, we were just on the edge of extinction of the species,” says Garcia. “Today, we can say that this is a process of recovery - we’re going in the right direction.”
In an ongoing effort to reintroduce a small species to its natural habitat, a recent release has taken place. A total of 1,000 snails were released on Bermuda's Trunk Island, Higg's Island, and Port Island. This marks the latest attempt following three previous releases conducted between 2020 and 2022. The outcomes of these earlier releases are currently under observation and study.
The success of the reintroduction remains uncertain, and Garcia anticipates that progress may be slow, akin to the pace of a snail. The species in question has a lengthy reproductive cycle, and their small size poses a challenge for tracking and monitoring purposes, as they cannot carry electronic trackers. Nevertheless, Garcia and other participating scientists maintain optimism, partly inspired by their achievements in reintroducing the larger relative of this species: the greater Bermudan land snail.
The greater Bermudan land snail, roughly the size of a grape, was presumed extinct for more than four decades until a fortuitous encounter occurred. A man stumbled upon one of these snails in an alleyway within Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda.
“It was 2014, and a member of the public walked into my office and opened up his hand, and inside his hand was a snail shell,” recalls Mark Outerbridge, wildlife ecologist for Bermuda’s Department of Environment. “He said, ‘I think this may be an extinct species.’”
The chance encounter with a solitary shell revealed the existence of a surviving population, triggering a conservation initiative. Outerbridge, having been involved in research on skinks in Bermuda, approached Garcia, and the two collaborators made a joint decision to transport 60 of the snails to Chester for further examination and potential breeding.
Since that time, a remarkable accomplishment has been achieved. Over 100,000 greater Bermuda land snails have been successfully reintroduced to various locations across the archipelago. Garcia considers this to be one of the most extensive endeavors of species reintroduction for a single species.
“They’re doing great, Garcia remarks.” “We see that the animals are established, breeding and spreading.” In fact, the species has thrived to such an extent that Garcia believes there is no longer a necessity for breeding them within a zoo environment.
The optimistic outlook extends to the lesser Bermuda land snail, with hopes that it will emulate the success of its larger counterpart. Outerbridge explains, “We’ve been using the greater Bermuda land snail as the surrogate, or the research proxy, assuming that if they do well, the lesser Bermuda land snail will do as well.”
One of the lesser Bermuda land snails crawling on a white surface
The process of achieving long-term recovery for a species from critically low numbers is a complex undertaking. While breeding programs can be valuable, they alone cannot guarantee success. It is imperative to implement a comprehensive approach that combines breeding efforts with other conservation actions.
In the case of the greater and lesser land snail species, their initial decline was primarily attributed to the presence of predators such as flatworms, carnivorous snails, and feral chickens. These invasive species were introduced to Bermuda by human activities over the past few decades, either intentionally or accidentally. To ensure the resurgence of these snail populations, it is crucial to address and mitigate the threats posed by these predators.
Reducing the impact of these invasive species is essential for the thriving of the land snail populations. This can involve measures such as targeted predator control, habitat restoration, and the implementation of strategies to prevent further introductions of invasive species. By tackling these threats in conjunction with breeding efforts, we can increase the chances of successful long-term recovery for these snail species.
During the initial stages of the greater Bermuda land snail project, Outerbridge and his team faced a significant challenge: while the snails were successfully breeding in laboratories in the UK, there was a lack of suitable habitats for their safe release. In response, they dedicated their efforts to creating a conducive environment across various islands where the reintroduction was planned.
One such example is Trunk Island, where the focus has been on transforming the landscape to be more welcoming for the snails. This involved undertaking rigorous efforts to eradicate invasive species like the Brazil pepper, a garden plant introduced in the 1950s that had outcompeted many native plants. Simultaneously, they have been actively replanting native species such as palmetto and cedar trees, fostering an environment that is better suited for the snails to thrive.
“They (the islands) have really become our life rafts for species that are becoming threatened in ways that we can’t control on the main island,” says Outerbridge.
After successfully restoring the islands to a state closely resembling their condition prior to the decline of the land snail species, the team granted Garcia the green light to commence the transportation of snails back to their native habitats.
Garcia, a dedicated advocate for small species, has consistently championed their cause. His workplace at Chester Zoo consists of a collection of shipping containers discreetly nestled away from the bustling premises. Unlike the popular attractions that draw crowds, such as the majestic Sumatran tigers and Asian elephants, Garcia's focus lies on the endangered reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates housed within these unassuming containers.
Though they may not possess the same allure, Garcia firmly asserts their equal importance. Within these modest confines, scientists meticulously observe and study the biology, behavior, and breeding patterns of these species, all with the ultimate objective of reintroducing them into their natural habitats. These species represent some of the most imperiled groups on our planet, making this work a crucial step towards their preservation and restoration in the wild.
When questioned about his unwavering dedication to the well-being of even the tiniest creatures like the Bermuda snails, Garcia provides a profound response: “Why do we bother about any species we have on the planet?”
“Every single one, animals and plants, has a role to play,” he says. “Snails have many roles, one of them is degrading materials. That is part of the ecosystem, and if you remove that piece (then) the system is not working.”
He is optimistic that the work they are engaged in will effectively captivate the public and convey a powerful message of hope. “We can pick up a species that really was on the edge of extinction and we can turn it around,” he says.