Saving Endemic Hawaiian Snails Is A Moral imperative - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Bailey Spry

Bailey Spry recently completed a bachelor of science in botany at the University of Hawaii Manoa as a recipient of the Dr. Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott Scholarship. She is a science and environmental affairs intern at Pasquines, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to ending the insularity between the United States and its territories.

The term de-extinction may accompany a discussion on mammoths, saber tooth tigers, great auks, or other large, once prevalent and charismatic species. Methods such as whole genome sequencing coupled with discoveries of preserved DNA make biological regeneration efforts more plausible than ever before.

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When extant mammals, birds, and other large species face threats of extinction or make breaking news because scientists are one step closer to resurrecting their extinct cousins, many rally in support. But despite contending ecological contributions, invertebrates are often overlooked.

Invertebrates make up the bulk of animal diversity on Earth yet are dangerously underrepresented in biodiversity studies. Many estimates suggest that about 90% of the 750 land snail species that once existed across the Hawaiian Islands have been lost to extinction.

A 2018 paper published by scientists at Bishop Museum documented more species than previously thought to exist, about 200, but continued conservation assessment and monitoring of these populations is needed.

The colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by foreign powers led to a steady influx of competition for the Hawaiian flora and fauna. Endemic Hawaiian snails fell victim to habitat loss, rats, and predation by other introduced gastropods, primarily the carnivorous rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea).

Ranging in length from 5 to 70 millimeters and exhibiting an array of colors from rainbow to beige, these endemic Hawaiian snails are capable of living for over a decade. First described by taxonomists in 1868, Auriculella uniplicata was one such species of terrestrial snail endemic to the Hawaiian island of Maui and last seen in 1946.

A loss of culture often follows a loss of species as many indigenous groups utilize and ascribe strong significance to plants and animals. Kāhuli, the Hawaiian name for terrestrial snails, was used for traditional lei making and was often referenced in ancient mele. One in particular with modern arrangement is called Kāhuli aku Kāhuli mai and tells of the relationship between the kāhuli, the kōlea bird (Pluvialis fulva) and the ‘akōlea fern (Athyrium microphyllum).

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

Hawaiian mele and hula also tell of ka leo o ke Kāhuli, the voice of the tree snails that could purportedly be heard “singing” or “chirping” as they fed on the fungi of leaves in the evenings after a rain. The modern-day absence of this phenomenon can most readily be explained by the rapid population decline.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the de-extinction of any species is the return of the ecosystem services they provide. In addition to providing food for native bird populations who are also vulnerable to decline and extinction, Hawaiian land snails graze on fungus growing on the leaves of native plants.

The act of grazing by native snails decreases fungal abundance, protecting host trees from disease, while simultaneously increasing fungal diversity as snails spread these leaf-dwelling fungi through their feces.

Considering that unwanted fungal growth is one obstacle to the reintroduction and conservation of native and endemic plant species in Hawaii, as seen with the fungal pathogen responsible for Rapid Ohia Death, these arboreal snails present themselves as a potential partner in this enterprise. The confluence of these two restoration efforts, that of endemic plants and snails, could show promising results considering the mutualism that has existed between them for millennia.

High Levels Of Endemism

Of course, there are valid ethical concerns for the de-extinction of Hawaiian snails, particularly if the goal is a return to population numbers that pre-date colonization. This would mean the eradication of rats and other invasive snails as well as a suppression of suburban and commercial development in the islands to prevent further habitat loss. This poses a problem for rats and non-native snails as it is necessary to acknowledge the intrinsic value of all species even while advocating for one in particular.

However, considering the high levels of endemism for these Hawaiian snails and the fact that global populations of rats and non-native snails would be largely unaffected by eradication, the scale seems to tip in favor of the rights of snails. Similar considerations could be made for humans: it would be wise, as a species, to examine our “right” to unregulated growth and environmental reach.

Invertebrates make up the bulk of animal diversity on Earth yet are dangerously underrepresented in biodiversity studies.

De-extinction efforts for Hawaiian tree snails could improve public awareness surrounding these and other small, “uncharismatic” and often overlooked species. As illustrated by the ancient Hawaiian mele about the singing kāhuli, oral history can inform us about the existence of ecological processes unknown or not yet described by the scientific framework. Exploration of such processes, that could provide new insights into science, is made possible only by the reintroduction, here de-extinction of and continued support for these species.

The late American author, philosopher, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold may have coined the term, the land ethic, but this is precisely the principle by which indigenous communities survived free of industrial aid for millennia. This ethic was deeply embedded in Hawaiian culture and is expressed on the Hawaiian Kingdom’s coat of arms: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”

The life of the land was also sustained by the presence of ‘oha wai (Clermontia peleana), ‘alalā (Corvus hawaiiensis) and kāhuli. In defense of these and other de-extinction efforts, this righteousness spoken of can be considered no less than a moral imperative.

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About the Author

Bailey Spry

Bailey Spry recently completed a bachelor of science in botany at the University of Hawaii Manoa as a recipient of the Dr. Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott Scholarship. She is a science and environmental affairs intern at Pasquines, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to ending the insularity between the United States and its territories.


Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo for a fascinating story about one of the least of God's creatures. It's amazing how little most of us know about the inhabitants of our islands.

Peter_Bishop · 1 month ago

Good article.

Valerie · 1 month ago

Rapid Ohai death alone will deplete the population. We need to get it under control first.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 month ago

Join the conversation

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