An Endangered Species is a plant or animal that is at immediate risk of extinction – of going away forever if something isn’t done to protect every individual of that species, and the environment where it lives. Many endangered species, such as the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), and Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), and Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) are well-known as Endangered mascots, and live in vast areas of hundreds or thousands of miles; but others species, in just as much danger of becoming extinct, live in small, easily forgotten places that could be destroyed with a single event. And after almost 30 years of waiting (there is a long and complex process that scientists have to go through to prove that an endangered species is, in fact, endangered ), one of these usually unnoticed species, the Chupadera springsnail (Pyrgulopsis chupaderae), has just last week been listed as an official Endangered Species.
This little snail – and we do mean little, measuring only about 1/10 of an inch – lives only at two fresh-water springs in the Chupadera Mountains in Socorro County, just about the center of the state of New Mexico. In fact the springs where they live, and the surrounding land is so limited, the entire area set aside for Chupy the Snail – its critical habitat – is only about two acres. That’s just a little larger than the area of a football field. So this area is now protected from the cows and livestock of local ranches, who have been damaging the land by trampling over the springs and seasonal wetlands. (Have you ever seen cows at a waterhole? In just a few minutes of walking and pawing and sliding around, it’s mud city. Which might be why cattle are generally not allowed in water parks. Also they refuse to wear proper bathing suits).
Whoo-Hoo you might say, that’s nice for the snail, I hope they have a happy life but it doesn’t do much for me. Well little Chupy here, and other snails and freshwater creatures we might not think about, do important work in their limited worlds that effect the environments of larger species like birds and reptiles and plants and mammals like us. By eating algae and bacteria from the springs, the snails and similar species keep the water fresh and clean for other wildlife. Because they are so little and easily affected by changes in the environment, they serve as indicator species that help researchers understand the health of entire ecosystems. And maybe most interesting to us, Springsnails and other gastropods (that’s the name of the group all snails belong to) are helping important biomedical work. By studying the slime of snails and slugs, scientists are understanding the natural basis of polymer chemistry, how skin forms and how wounds heal. Using slime studies (and who wouldn’t want to work with SLIME STUDIES!!), scientists are creating medical improvements that will help people recover from wounds and operations faster and with fewer complications. And for a little snail living in the desert of New Mexico, that’s a lot to be proud of.
Don’t be a slug. Learn more about little species that do big jobs: