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What Do Kayakers and River Snails have in Common?

by Devin Reese -- Apr 26, 2017

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Keeled Ramshorn snail (Planorbis carinatus) that lives in rivers and lakes in Europe. Photo by Gerhard Falkner.
Keeled Ramshorn snail (Planorbis carinatus) that lives in rivers and lakes in Europe. Photo by Gerhard Falkner.

Both kayakers and river snails are animals who rely on freshwater. While for a kayaker, it’s for recreation, for a snail it’s about livelihood. Freshwater snails live underwater and feed on algae and other bits of aquatic food. Like kayakers, they depend on certain conditions of temperature, water flow, and water quality for their activities.

Many of us have seen a land snail on a sidewalk or plant. On beaches, we have found shells that belong to marine snails, such as periwinkles, whelks, and conchs. But, freshwater snails are less visible and less well understood. Yet, freshwater snails are a really diverse group, with upwards of 4,000 known species, living on every continent but Antarctica. 

What makes a snail a snail? It’s an animal in the class Gastropoda. We think of snails as having shells, but slugs are actually snails as well, technically. What gastropods have in common is a muscular foot (gastropod = “stomach foot”) that extends out from the bottom of their shell with the stomach and other organs coiled above. Most gastropods use the foot to move around, whether creeping, swimming, or burrowing. Slime secreted by special foot glands helps smooth their way forward. 

Many human activities affect snails by polluting or otherwise altering the habitats they live in.  Freshwater snails are particularly vulnerable because they live in patchy environments. Imagine the view from above of a landscape dotted with ponds, lakes, and streams. Snails are not exactly speedy, and if the freshwater they live in becomes uninhabitable, they may not have the ability to move to a new setting.

Damming, mining, draining, and the myriad of other changes to freshwater ecosystems have taken a toll on freshwater snails. The impacts show in the dozens of species that have gone extinct and dozens more at risk of extinction. While we might wonder about the significance of losing any single species of snail, collectively they sustain food webs in which they play roles as ecosystem engineers- breaking down dead materials, cycling nutrients, and maintaining water quality.  

Zoologist Ellen Strong studies freshwater snails in an effort to understand their biodiversity and ecosystem needs. Learn more about her work on these cryptic animals in the "Smithsonian Science How" webcast on Thursday, May 11, 2017. During How Humans Impact Freshwater Snails (airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EDT on the Q?rius website), Ellen will take you on a journey to her field sites while answering your questions live. You can also get teaching resources to use with the webcast.