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."