Despite the mass extermination of Tahitis unique species of tree snails in recent decades, much of their original genetic diversity can still be found in remnant populations that survive on the island, researchers report in the July 3rd issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. The findings offer renewed hope that targeted conservation measures may yet preserve a representative, although impoverished, fraction of Tahitis endemic tree snail genetic diversity in the wilda feat earlier believed to be impossible.
The Society Islands were a biodiversity hot spot for tree snails, containing approximately half of the described species in this land snail family, said Diarmaid Foighil of The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Only a few years ago, it looked like the sole survivors from this radiation would be the captive populations that have been painstakingly established and maintained for decades in European and American zoos. Our new study indicates that it may be possible to maintain genetically representative remnant wild populations on Tahiti, the largest Society Island, although this will require proactive conservation measures. Progress on Tahiti may pave the way for the re-introduction of surviving captive snails to the other Society Islands.
He emphasized, however, that the new discovery does not change the basic fact that the vast majority of the small, colorful tree snails are now gone.
Prior to the recent mass extirpation, they were very conspicuous in their natural rain forest habitat and Society Islanders used them, in large numbers, to make traditional shell lei jewelry, Foighil said. He said his colleague Jack Burch, also of The University of Michigan, described their collecting in 1970 as being like picking berriesthey were that common.
Today, all but five of 61 described Society Islands partulid tree snails are extinct in the wild, following the introduction of the carnivorous rosy wolf snail, he said
Contact: Erin Doonan