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GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- They're barely big enough to see and they feel like grit, but some new species of snails discovered by a University of Florida scientist may be able to provide some big clues about the water we use.
Fred Thompson, a UF mollusk expert, has found six tiny new species in springs at the Seminole State Forest near Apopka and two in Holmes Creek in the Florida Panhandle.
"It's fascinating that there's so much about our world in our own back yard about which we know so little," said Thompson, a zoology professor who studies mollusks at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.
"One reason they haven't been discovered until now is they're too little for the average person walking along the spring or creek to notice," he said. "We're talking about very small snails -- approximately a tenth to a quarter of an inch long."
And you won't spot them unless you happen to be within a few feet of where they were found. These snails are true homebodies; all live inside a 100-yard linear stretch of the spring run.
For unknown reasons, that's true throughout the world for many members of this particular family of snails. Called hydrobiid snails, they belong to the largest family of freshwater mollusks and are found everywhere except Antarctica and Southeast Asia.
Many species in this particular family are important ecological barometers of water quality because they are extremely sensitive to temperature, oxygen levels, sediments and unnatural contaminants, Thompson said. Their presence frequently signals a naturally pristine spring or creek that has not been harmed by environmental threats.
"It would not take much of a disturbance to hurt these snails," he said. "If you went back to that same place later and did not find them, you would have serious cause to worry that something terrible had happened."
Thompson, who brought samples of the newly discovered snails to the museum to study, found some while inventorying various springs in the Seminole State Forest as part of a proposed management plan for the forest and Wekiva State Park, Florida's largest state park system. The survey on Holmes Creek, where two of the species were found, began as a spin-off of a weekend canoe trip.
Many water bodies in Florida should have the snails, but don't. Presumably, they were eradicated by agricultural and industrial pollution, and by urban runoff, Thompson said.
The public should be concerned about water quality not only for the snail's sake, he said, but for its effects on drinking-water supplies, freshwater recreation and possibly even aquaculture use.
On the positive side, the public has developed a greater concern for conservation matters than in the past, Thompson said.
"Forty years ago, if you talked to people about conserving small fish species they thought were all minnows, they considered you an alarmist," he said. "If you talked about salamanders, the prevalent attitude was, ‘So what good are they?' And if you talked about turtles, they'd shrug and say, ‘Well, can they be eaten?'"
Although there is a naturally more interest in larger species of wildlife, snails and clams sometimes capture nature lover's attention in constructive ways, Thompson said.
"When I bring it to the attention of property owners that they have a creature -- a snail, a crayfish or a shrimp -- living in a spring in a creek in their backyard that is found nowhere else in the world, usually they get very protective and paternal about it," he said.
Robert Hershler, a zoology curator at the Smithsonian Institution, described Thompson as "the foremost authority on this taxonomically diverse fauna. Dr. Thompson's discoveries, when published in the form of species descriptions, will help direct wildlife agency efforts to conserve and manage aquatic ecosystems in Florida."
University of Florida. August 2000.
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