Unique snails suffer under climate change

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: The delegates in Cancun are looking at the big picture at what climate change could mean on a global scale. We're going to look small now, really small, and zoom in on the effect climate change may have on one particular spot and one particular species of tiny snail. Bathe Springs snails are found only at one place on Earth, and that would be in the hot springs of Bathe National Park in Alberta, Canada. Those springs are now drying up. Dr. Dwayne Lupinski is a conservation biologist on contract now with Parks Canada Banff. He's been studying the snails for 14 years, a long time to devote to a tiny snail. Duran Lupinski, what's so special about the snail that you find in Bathe National Park?

Dwayne Lupinski: Well, it's endemic. That means it's found nowhere else in the world. And here we have a case, as you mentioned in your introduction where a global change could be affecting a very, very tiny but important component of our ecosystem.

Mullins: So what's the global change, and how is it affecting this tiny snail?

Lupinski: Well, what I've noticed since I started working on this project in 1996 is that in 12 of the past 15 years, some of the thermal springs have dried up in Bathe National Park. Now, we have a number of different theories about what's causing the drying. The most prominent theory, the most plausible theory, is that climate change and changes in precipitation are causing what would used to be a very rare occurrence, that is the thermal springs drying up, is becoming extremely common place.

Mullins: And what would the world lose if it lost this little snail?

Lupinski: Yeah, I get asked that question all the time. So, why should we be concerned about a little snail? My answer can range anywhere from, well, it's all about biodiversity and how every little thing is important. It's also philosophically; what right do we have to say what species are more important and which ones should be allowed to go extinct? And then there's some legal questions. This species is found in a national park, so it's protected in the Canadian National Parks Act. In addition to that, it's listed as an endangered species, under the Canadian Federal Species at Risk Act. So, by law, the government of Canada, and in turn the people of Canada, have made a commitment to ensure that this species continues to survive.

Mullins: So, what do they look like, in the park and areas where they gather around these springs?

Lupinski: What do they look like? Well, they're quite small. They're about five millimeters shell length, and they kind of look like a lemon seed. These particular individuals, these snails, have lungs. So most of the time we find them sitting on the top of the water surface on floating sticks and rocks, and that type of thing. One of their favorite places to hangout is on the floating maps of bacterial analogy, which not only provides them substrates, but it's also their food source.

Mullins: We're going to feed you some images of these snails on our website. In the big picture, you might have to convince some people that this matters.

Lupinski: Yes, and that's always been a very difficult bottle right from day one. Why should people be concerned that about a little, tiny snail that's living in hot springs in Bathe National Park. Well, what this little snail is telling us is that the world is in trouble. Again, something that used to be an extremely rare event , the thermal spring drying, is now becoming commonplace. This could be an example of possibly the first Canadian species that goes extinct because of climate change. Because, without the hot water, these snails will not survive.

Mullins: Alright, Dr. Lupinski. Very nice to talk to you. Dwayne Lupinski, conservation biologist, in Banff, Canada, speaking to us about the endangered Bathe's Springs snail. Thanks again.

Lupinski: Thank you!