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The first new species of a living Hawaiian land snail described in 60 years

It really is the little things that make the difference. At this time of climate emergency, species extinction and a public health pandemic it is always good to report news of a positive kind – no matter how far away or how tiny it may be.

Land snail Credit Kenneth Hayes and Norine Yeung

An adult Auriculella gagneorum, left, subadult and juvenile rest on the tip of a toothpick. The snails represent the first new living Hawaiian land snail species described in 60 years. Credit: Kenneth Hayes and Norine Yeung

A small candy-striped snail from Oahu’s Waianae Mountains, Hawaii, has been discovered. Auriculella gagneorum  is the first new species of a living Hawaiian land snail described in 60 years.

There were once 750 species of land snail in Hawaii and are now thought to number less than half of that. Across all the Pacific islands, land snails have suffered devastating loss ” with more recorded extinctions since 1600 than any other group of animals.”

A team of researchers found A. gagneorum during a large-scale, decade-long survey of land snails that spanned 1,000 sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands. They then used the Bishop Museum’s collection of land snails to match individuals collected during the survey to unidentified specimens from the 1940s.

Norine Yeung, malacology curator at the Bishop Museum, said:

“This is a happy story where we discovered a snail that is still around.

“There are so many things in our collection that we can no longer find in the wild. But in this snail’s case, we can finally put a name to it and describe it, which is huge for the conservation of this species.”

Land snails play a crucial role in ecosystems by  breaking down matter. They have suffered species loss due to human actions causing habitat loss and the introduction of invasive non native species.

A. gagneorum, is tiny and  you could fit about 12 of them on your fingernail.

It is a tree dwelling snail and varies in colour from burnished tiger’s-eye patterning to dramatic sable and white stripes.

The researchers deposited a selection of A. gagneorum snails in Hawaii’s captive breeding program, with the goal of increasing their numbers and returning them to the wild. They named the species in honor of the influential late Hawaiian naturalists Betsy and Wayne Gagne.

land snail 2 credit:

Auriculella gagneorum was named in honor of the late Betsy and Wayne Gagne, longtime champions of Hawaii’s biodiversity. credit: Sam Gon III

The team’s survey also produced new records of three snail species last documented in the 1950s and others feared extinct, as well as nearly 30 new species. The researchers failed to find two species, A. auricula and A. minuta, whose populations may have died out.

John Slapcinsky, collection manager of invertebrate zoology at the Florida Museum of Natural History and co author said:

“People used to think it wasn’t even worth studying Hawaiian land snails because they were all extinct. Now we know they’re not.

“If we work at it, there’s still a chance to do something about it. That’s why it’s important to be out there surveying, finding the remaining populations of these species.”

Hawaii’s land snails, are traditionally considered by native Hawaiians as important symbols and good omens that represent change, romance and song.

Norine Yeung said:

“The diversity is amazing, the species are amazing, and there are so many evolutionary stories you could tell.

“But first we have to identify these snails. If you ask about their habitat and life history, it’s like, I wish I could tell you. Right now, I can just tell you this is a different species and put a name on it. It’s hard work, but it’s so gratifying.”

land snail  credit Kenneth Hayes and Norine Yeung

The tree-dwelling snails show distinct variation in color and patterning. The holotype, the specimen that officially represents the species, is on the left. credit: Kenneth Hayes and Norine Yeung

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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