Land Snails and their Amazing Diversity


Manage episode 282284528 series 2813642
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Land snails???? Come on, how do they fit with Backyard Ecology? True, land snails aren’t the most charismatic organism in our yards and communities, so it would be easy to just write them off and ignore them. Most of us probably do that on a regular basis. But, land snails are extremely important to our ecosystem and in some cases are critical to the survival of much more charismatic organisms. Not to mention, they can be pretty fascinating in their own right if we just give them a chance.

On today’s episode of Backyard Ecology, we talk with Dan and Judy Dourson. Dan is a wildlife biologist, author, illustrator, and educator. Judy is an educator, author, editor, and researcher. Dan and Judy have had really interesting careers that have taken them from the mountains of Kentucky to the jungles of Belize and places in between. However, much of their recent work has focused on land snails.

Although they are often overlooked, land snails play vital roles in the ecosystem. They help to recycle nutrients. They move spores of fungi and other organisms to new locations. And they are an important food source for everything from firefly larvae to songbirds and raptors. In some cases, like that of Florida’s snail kite, a species’ entire diet is made up of a single species of land snail. If those land snails go extinct, then so would the other animal (in this case the snail kite) that depends on them.

The eastern U.S. has the highest biodiversity of land snails in all of North America. If you happen to live in the Appalachian Mountain region, especially along the Tennessee / North Carolina border, then you are in an area that is especially rich in land snail biodiversity including many species that are found nowhere else in the world. However, no matter where you live in the eastern U.S., you likely have a dozen or more species of land snails in your yard. Some of those species will be native, while others (like the ones that eat our vegetable gardens) are likely exotic.

I love the fact that land snails are something that we can all find in our yards and communities if we just take the time to look for them. And maybe that is the point – just taking the time to slow down, look, and appreciate all the little things that we so often take for granted. Encouraging land snails in your yard isn’t hard either. Basically, all we have to do are the same things that we would do to encourage pollinators, songbirds, or other wildlife – no separate “land snail garden” required.

My mind often focuses on the ecological importance of an organism, so I was surprised to learn that land snails are also being studied for their ability to address a number of medical issues. This has the potential to create another realm of valuable benefits that land snails can provide beyond their ecological benefits. There’s just so much that we don’t know and still have to learn about land snails and other organisms, especially the less charismatic ones.

In the end, I think Judy had the absolute best quote of the day when she said, “You only protect what you learn to love and you can only love something if you know its name.” That is so true and is part of the reason why I include episodes like this which feature some of those undervalued species. I recognize that I don’t know enough about land snails and I’m as guilty as the next person of overlooking their importance. So my goal through conversations like this, is to learn more and gain a greater appreciation for some of these less well-known organisms. I’ve definitely been inspired to start looking for and identifying some of the land snails in my area. I hope you have been too.


Episode image

  • Greenbrier tigersnail (Anguispira stihleri)
  • Photo credit: Dan and Judy Dourson

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