Snails are so common along beaches in New England that we might start to worry if we didn’t find untold thousands amongst the sandbars at low tide. In fact, we oftentimes tend to associate snails exclusively with saltwater environments. However, the inland forests of the Northeastern United States are home to a few varieties of terrestrial snails that make their home in comparatively dry environments far from the seashore. The Whitelip Snail (Neohelix albolabris) is one of the largest of these land-dwellers, wearing a shell that can grow to more than an inch across!
Although the population of Whitelips in the northeastern United States is stable and the species is not endangered, it’s still rather rare for avid hikers to happen upon them. The Whitelip Snail is primarily a nocturnal creature, only emerging from daytime hiding places once the Sun has gone down and forests are swallowed up in darkness. If you’ve hiked in moist woodlands before, its likely that you passed by a good deal of these snails, but that they were hiding beneath leaf-litter or tucked away in rock crevices.
How did I get this photograph, you ask? Conditions and timing are the key. One morning, after a night of significant rainfall, I set out to Sheepskin Hollow Preserve in East Haddam, Connecticut to hike the trails and search for some unique photo opportunities. Everything under the forest canopy was exceptionally wet and, only a few feet off the trail, I discovered two Whitelips lazily exploring the damp bark of a tree trunk. Wet, humid, early-morning conditions such as these are probably the only times that you stand a chance of spotting the Whitelip Snail without stumbling through the woods at midnight with a flashlight. Even then, you’ve got to keep an eye out for them, because they aren’t exactly “high-profile” creatures. Had I been even a tad bit distracted, I would’ve walked right by them without ever realizing that they were there.
There are larger terrestrial snails that scour isolated stretches of woodlands of the Northeast, but unlike the Whitelip, they are non-native species that were carelessly introduced to the environment by humans. The Giant East African Land Snail, for example, can grow to astounding lengths of 6″ to 8″, truly dwarfing the Whitelip Snail. These snails are illegal to possess in the United States, primarily because they are so greatly prone to becoming invasive and causing severe damage to crops. Nonetheless, surveys conducted in Connecticut over the last decade have revealed that they are somehow appearing in the environment, albeit in insignificant numbers so far. The problem is actually rather widespread in the United States, too, drawing the attention of both federal and state governments. Researchers suggest that people who are unaware of the danger posed by these snails, as well as the unlawfulness of possessing them, may be importing them as pets or classroom science experiments, subsequently releasing them into the wild when interest fades or usefulness expires.
This is exceptionally troubling, because the Giant African Land Snail reproduces quickly under the right conditions and can be extremely difficult to remove once it has established itself. A fact sheet released by the State of Michigan recounts one instance in which this occurred in the Southern United States:
“In 1966, a Miami boy smuggled three giant African land snails into the country. His grandmother eventually released them into a garden, and in seven years, there were more than 18,000 of them. The Florida state eradication effort took 10 years at a cost of $1 million.” 1
Bear in mind that, in 1966, a million dollars was worth considerably more than it is in modern times. A similar eradication campaign in 2011 could easily cost $10 million, if not more!
1 “Giant African Land Snails Fact Sheet.” Michigan.gov. State of Michigan, n.d. Web. 25 Jul 2011. <http://www.michigan.gov/documents/MDA_Giant_African_Land_Snail_Fact_Sheet_92709_7.pdf>.