Utah’s long list of native snails got a little longer this year after a state biologist stumbled upon what turned out to be a boreal top snail while conducting mollusk surveys last spring in the Uinta Mountains.
Jordan Detlor, an aquatics biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources was looking for another snail April 21 in Dry Fork Canyon, near Vernal, when his eye caught sight of a tiny shell as he pulled up logs.
“I pretty much knew right away that it was something different,” Detlor said. “It just looked so different. It’s really small, though with the naked eye, you can see the rib-like ridges along the bottom two spirals and just the general shape of the shell.”
In all, DWR counted eight living specimens. Detlor and his colleagues photographed them and sent the images around to mollusk experts to help identify the unfamiliar creature.
“We figured out that it was Zoogenetes harpa, the species name, and common name, boreal top,” Detlor said. “It was pretty exciting. Then a couple of weeks after that initial discovery in Dry Fork we found it again just a couple of drainages over in Big Brush Creek, right next to Big Brush Creek Cave.”
The discovery brings to 125 the number of native snails inhabiting Utah. Sixty-six are aquatic species, and 59 are terrestrial, like the boreal top snail.
“Finding a new species is very exciting because it shows that there are still many things to be learned and discovered when it comes to the natural world,” Detlor said, “and it shows that there is still a lot that we don’t know yet.”
“Our native mollusks here in Utah are even more diverse than than we thought before. The more species you have and the more biodiversity you have in an ecosystem, the more resilient typically it will be,” he continued. “It just shows the great wealth of biodiversity that we have in the state. People talk about the diversity of the landscape in Utah where we’ve got red rocks and high high elevation lakes. The biodiversity is kind of similar.”
The snail species’ known range spans much of Canada and some norther U.S. states, including Colorado. The critter is rare across its global range, which includes Scandinavia, Russia and Japan. Detlor is fairly certain the boreal top is native to Utah because it is so unlikely they were transported into Utah. Invasive nonnative mollusks in Utah, such as New Zealand mudsnail or quagga mussel, hitched rides on fishing gear and boats, but the boreal top snail would have no such opportunity.
“The most logical explanation is that they are native,” Detlor said. “They’re just so small. They’ve probably been here all along and just didn’t get noticed.”
At 4 millimeters in length, this snail is smaller than a grain of short-grain rice.
Snails in general play vital roles in nature that tend go unnoticed.
“Because land snails feed on living and dead plant material and help break down leaf litter and rotting wood, they are an important piece of the puzzle for healthy, functional ecosystems,” Detlor said. “They in turn are a food source for different insects, small mammals and even some birds, including grouse and turkeys.”