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Long-forgotten samples may help save species

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Some 600 vials stored in a University of Michigan freezer for more than 30 years may hold keys to rescuing nearly extinct Tahitian land snails.

The snails, famous since the late 1800s as classic examples of species that had rapidly diversified in an isolated environment, later became victims of a "spectacularly inept attempt at biological control," said U-M mollusk expert Diarmaid Ó Foighil.

The trouble started in 1975 when the predatory rosy wolf snail was deliberately introduced to many South Pacific islands to control an agricultural pest. The problem was, the rosy wolf snail had a bigger appetite for native land snails than for the pests it was supposed to devour. Over the years, the native snails were virtually wiped out, and today only six of the original 61 species of land snails originally found in the Society Island archipelago survive in the wild.

Researchers and conservationists stepped in during the 1980s and began setting up captive populations in European and North American Zoos (eventually including the Detroit Zoo), and snails from these breeding programs gradually are being reintroduced to protected areas in their former ranges. Understanding the evolutionary relationships between the captive populations, the remaining wild snails and the original 61 species would greatly aid conservation and rehabilitation efforts, said Ó Foighil, and that's where those long-forgotten vials come in.

Back in 1970, U-M professor emeritus John B. (Jack) Burch traveled to Tahiti to study the native snails, which had not yet been decimated by the rosy wolf snail. Hiking deep into valleys where the snails were found, Burch collected several thousand specimens. Most were preserved in alcohol for anatomical studies, but he also shipped about 600 live snails back to U-M to be freeze-dried. At the time, researchers used proteins to study relationships among species, and freeze-drying preser
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Contact: Nancy Ross Flanigan
rossflan@umich.edu
734-647-1853
University of Michigan
7-Apr-2004


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