George is the last known living individual of Achatinella apexfulva. David Sischo and his team from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) named him “in homage to …Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise who was the last individual of his subspecies.” George’s home would normally be the mid elevation forests on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu rather than the safe environment of the new labs of the DNLR, but he’s here, having outlived his siblings. Nearby there are another 500 at-risk snails of other imperiled species, safely tucked into protective nests of ‘ōhi'a lehua, 'ie 'ie, and branches of other native plants, in climate controlled Caron Growth Chambers.
There are 44 Hawaiian land snail species listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. The other 706 that are known and described haven’t been studied enough to receive listing status. Achatinella, George’s genus, is the most studied, but conservationists estimate Achatinella species are only 6% of the native snail species present in the islands; the other 87% are largely unresearched but likely declining at similar rates. That gap in understanding seriously limits work to prevent their extinction.
That’s where the museum and zoo fields are helping the natural resources team.
Norine Yeung is working to gain intellectual control of the largest collection anywhere of Pacific Island land snail specimens, and the 2nd largest malacology specimen collection in the world (over 6 million). It is at the Charles Montague Cooke, Jr., Malacology Research Center at the Bishop Museum. The collection’s field notebooks tell us the story of 100 years of original research, conducted by scientists from all over the world. George is a member of the first species of Hawaiian land snail to be described by researchers. It was part of a lei giving to a Captain George Dixon while he was on Oʻahu in 1786-1787.
Yeung’s goal is to create research access, and public access, which is one of the first steps to take to start clarifying Hawaiian Land Snail systematics: naming species (taxonomy) and determining relationships among its groups (phylogeny). Systematics supports the applied conservation that David Sischo and his team at DNLR, George’s keepers, conduct on a daily basis. Conservation scientists need this access and information to help them understand the evolution of a species, species relationships, the likely threats to the species, and how species become dispersed among the mountain ridges and valleys throughout the Hawaiian Islands. This knowledge guides decisions when identifying and rescuing snails, protecting new habitats, and reintroducing sufficient populations into predator-proofed and legally-protected areas.
Yeung became interested in malacology (study of mollusks) in 2008 when she accepted an invitation to join a survey team from University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.The team recorded 200 new species in 10 native families during almost a decade of work. Seeing the threatened state of the snails, and realizing how very few scientists studied and protected them, Yeung chose to change her focus from ornithology to malacology (study of mollusks). She procured a grant for her position at the Bishop in August 2016, and started bringing the focus back to research, which Charles Montague Cooke, Jr. had in mind when he became curator of the deparmtnet in 1907. The collection has not had a curator or researcher for about 15 years, but has been maintained primarily by a half-time malacology technician (Regina Lkawamoto), and extraordinarily-committed volunteers, including the retired curator, Dr. Carl Christensen. Now, with the help of a research assistant supported by funds from the National Science Foundation, Yeung is stepping-up the work to improve access to the collections.
They are rehousing the specimen collection, inputting taxonomic data, which includes spcies name, collection locality and date, into an in-house database that will be used to create a searchable database. They will also digitize the historical field notebooks collected by Cooke and his peers from the early 1900s . These notebooks are a treasure trove of information on extinct, endangered, and threatened species. They tell researchers what specimens alone cannot. Once the collections database work is complete, DNLR’s Sischo and other researchers worldwide can query by geographical location, taxon, and other collection data to improve their understanding and support their critical conservation work.
The biodiversity of the islands is at stake. O'ahu is part of the most isolated island chain on the planet. 99.5% of the land snail species are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. So many of the plants and animals “co-evolved” here on Oʻahu or the other seven islands that “the extinction of one species could lead to cascading extinctions of other species” according to Hawai’i’s DNLR. Such serious losses threaten the ecosystem and Hawaiian cultural heritage. George’s extinction is due mostly to introduced invasive predators, habitat destruction through widespread and rapid development of wild spaces on the island, over-collection, and limited knowledge of the snail populations across this island. But it’s not just about George; it’s about how his story is a Pacific Islands story.
Loss of land and habitat, and the introduction of invasive species forever change the appearance and usefulness of the landscape, and remove it from cultural access. The land snails are part of historic native Hawaiian chants, they support folk stories and heritage symbolism, and their shells were used for making ceremonial lei. The snails are also an important component of healthy native ecosystems. Fewer snails mean fewer food sources for native birds, and loss of ecosystem benefits to keep the forests healthy: detritivore snails eat the dead plant materials on the forest floor and recycle nutrients for plant growth; other snails eat leaf-based fungi that thrive in the moist environment and potentially threaten plant health. Snails are tiny, but mighty.
Still, with no way to escape disease, habitat loss, introduced predators, or climate changes, George and the rest of the snails depend upon humans to reverse these changes or create alternative solutions. Sischo and his team study snail habitats and food sources, and work with community members to identify new protected spaces. They rescue snails, cultivate stronger and larger populations, predator-proof the new habitats, and release and monitor the snails. This is a tough battle that requires teamwork. Recently Hawaiʻi’s DNLR and the Division of Forestry and Wildlife have expanded the Snail Extinction Prevention Program team of collaborators to include The Honolulu Zoo. In 2017 the Zoo will open a new Reptile and Amphibian Complex. It will have an invertebrate research and recovery lab that is a separate location for Hawaiian Land Snail populations – a duplicate gene pool for safety - and public engagement space promoting conservation in Hawai'i. Laura Debnar, Curator and Conservation Chair of the Zoo’s Aloha ‘Āina Conservation program, says this is one example of how the zoo expects to increase involvement in Hawaiian conservation programs and engage citizens in science and conservation.
This Hawaiian Land Snail Extinction Prevention Program is a perfect example of the future of conservation. I met Sischo and Yeung as they presented at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) recent World Congress. The conference leaders emphasized that to protect biodiversity and the planet’s air, land, and water resources, it requires partnerships of research scientists and informal educational institutions. These conferences and partnerships strengthen science by raising awareness, teaching skills, and creating agency among many more of the planet’s citizens, than conservationists can alone.
Sischo, Yeung, Debnar, and their colleagues at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Zoo, DLNR and DOFAW, are doing the hard but, important work of furthering the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals through their passionate commitment to George and his friends.
SDGs #13 Climate Action, #15 Life on Land, and #17 Partnerships for the Goals.