National Treasure #164: Banff Springs Snail

In only a handful of thermal springs in Banff National Park
lives an inconspicuous little snail that is found nowhere else in the world.

Endemic species are those that exist in only one geographic region.  In this sense, all species we know about are endemic: that is, restricted to Earth.

But it’s a concept used more frequently with a smaller geographic region than the whole planet.  When we visited the Galapagos, for example, we saw endemic lizards and birds; likewise when we visited Australia and New Zealand.  

But Canada isn’t an island, and we don’t have many endemic species. I’ve written here about one important site of these: the Athabasca Sand Dunes.

Today I highlight and celebrate one Canadian endemic species: the endangered Banff Springs snail.

Are snails just as important as grizzly bears? You bet they are!

There are some super detailed sites on the snail (see the Bow Valley Naturalists, and the Government of Canada’s Species at Risk Registry, for example) and even several YouTube videos (see links below), but for those wanting a high-level summary, we naturally turn to Wikipedia, albeit with some edits:

  • Type: aquatic pulmonate gastropod mollusks
  • Size: approximately the size of unpopped corn kernels
  • Shape of shell: coiled left-handed
  • What they eat: periphyton (Ed’s note: algae, according to this site)
  • When identified & where: 1926, in the 9 sulphurous hot springs of Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park
  • Where they are now: 5 hot springs (Ed’s note: reintroduction efforts have been successful in 2 springs, bringing this to 7, I think)
  • How many there are: Between 1,500 and 15,000 snails, depending on the season and other factors
  • What that would look like, all piled-up-like: 1,500 snails can fit in an ice cream cone; 15,000 in a one-litre carton
  • Why they’re unusual: They live in thermal springs where the water is low in oxygen and high in hydrogen sulfide, an environment too harsh for most animals to survive in.

But Wait, There’s More

This small snail also made history
by being the first mollusc (i.e., snails and clams)
to be classified by COSEWIC.

How Endangered Is It?

Well, quite, given that its range is so restricted and almost anything people can do to the hot springs can cause trouble for the snail.

Chemical contamination by human visitors,
like simply dipping a hand into the spring after using mosquito repellent,
can have serious consequences for the snail.

And, of course, swimming in the pools (marked with No Swimming signs) while smoking a cigar is a no-no.  And likely to lead to a hefty fine.

YouTube Videos

Introduction #1 – 0:40

Introduction #2 – 0:57

Overview – 1:37

Low waters threaten the snail – 1:56

Recovery actions – 7:58

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Jim Taylor

    Philosophically, I tend to side with the underdog: Like the Banff snails. But practically, I find myself wondering if every species needs protection. (Zebra mussels and mosquitoes come to mind.) Maybe we also need to recognize that occasionally, evolution takes a cul de sac.
    Jim T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – I don’t know what an ecologist would say about whether all species had equal value in the sense of impact from being lost. I do hear references to the criticality of apex predators as well as creatures at the opposite end of the food chain: Those that form the basis for lots of life. Plankton, and so on. Whether there’s more room for animals in the middle regions to move sideways and fill vacated niches, I don’t know.

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