By Brianna Mann
Published on Dec. 19, 2019 in the Arizona Daily Sun
In the precious and precarious groundwater systems scattered throughout the Southwest lies a vast, miraculous cosmos of tiny critters, hidden from view. Introducing: the springsnail.
Springsnails are fully aquatic, endemic, and often springs-dependent gastropods. There are more than 200 springsnail species across the Southwest, a few of which are federally endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Biologists are still discovering springsnail species, and the presence of these organisms tells a story of how life evolves in specialized environments and how biogeography forms unique environments to sustain unique life forms. Often no larger than a pin head, even when abundant these microscopic snails can be difficult to spot in their native habitat. However, they play important ecological roles in springs by eating algae and microbes, recycling nutrients, and serving as food for aquatic predators, all of which helps maintain water quality in these unique, freshwater ecosystems.
During the Ice Ages, which ended just 12,000 years ago, the Southwest landscape contained considerably larger bodies of water, allowing these miniscule, springs-dependent snails to diversify. As the climate became warmer and dryer in more recent millennia, the area of southwestern aquatic habitat shrank, and now these snails are restricted to the small pools and streams created by many isolated springs across the Southwest. Today, threats of climate change and increasing agricultural and domestic land use have a negative impact on springs and their springsnails.
In November 2018, the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Springs Stewardship Institute (SSI) joined the Springsnail Conservation Team, a group of stakeholders committed to developing the first comprehensive conservation strategy to protect springsnails in the Great Basin landscape in Utah and Nevada.
Unlike most wildlife conservation plans, which focus on a single species, this conservation plan includes the most up-to-date information on 93 springsnail species, which collectively occur in at least 1,300 springs. Because all 93 species serve similar ecological roles, there are many simple conservation management strategies that can be applied to benefit all springsnails and springs ecosystems.
The Springsnail Conservation Team consists of SSI, numerous state and federal agencies, springsnail and springs experts, and The Nature Conservancy. These stakeholders are committed to the common goals of protecting springsnails and springs to foster more sustainable water resource management and preventing the need for additional federal listing of springsnail species under the Endangered Species Act.
The team is developing a strategy for improving knowledge about springsnails and stewardship based on high quality information with new, updated data on each species and its habitat. The SSI database, Springs Online, https://springsdata.org/, provides a convenient platform for team members and the interested public to update information as springsnail species become known and as new populations are discovered.
The project not only stands to benefit these little specks of life, but will help highlight the need for sustainable management of southwestern springs. Springs are generally small, groundwater-dependent ecosystems, but they support so many life forms in this arid region, both the obvious and the inconspicuous, and springs are of enormous cultural, historical, and economic importance.
This project has been possible because of the combined effort of many agencies, non-governmental organizations, the public, and southwestern scientists, all working together. And yes, crucial insight and inspiration can be gleaned from even the smallest of life forms around us.
The MNA Springs Stewardship Institute is honored to work with the Springsnail Conservation Team and hopes that protection of these tiny, aquatic, flagship snails will stimulate direct and lasting conservation actions. Simple measures, such as fencing sources or removing invasive species can have a profound impact on the health of a spring and the survival of a species. These types of conservation action will help ensure the highest quality future for our families and our natural heritage, so much of which is related to that most important of southwestern natural resources – water.
Brianna Mann is a data technician for the Springs Stewardship Institute at the Museum of Northern Arizona.