GASTONIA North Carolina’s native land snails are tiny, secretive and ignored by many academic experts.
But the lowly mollusks will soon take center stage.
Gastonia’s Schiele Museum of Natural History will hold a first-of-a-kind regional land snail conference on Saturday.
It includes an educational presentation free to the public and a field trip to hunt for the 75 or so different species of land snails that live in the Charlotte area.
“Land snails are incredible animals,” said Denise Furr, the Schiele’s adjunct curator of malacology, the study of mollusks. “They’re so unassuming and people don’t see them very often. But they’re there – breaking down forest debris and turning it into nutrients for plants. They’re doing their job.”
Calling land snails “our decomposers,” she said they play “a very important role in the ecosystem.”
The mollusks prefer moist, hidden places in the woods. Their soft bodies have a high water content and also absorb pollution.
“Land snails are indicators of the health of the environment,” Furr said. “But they haven’t been widely studied.”
Native land snails range in size from one millimeter to two inches and cause little damage to plants, Furr said.
But the larger, invasive species like the Giant African Snail are a different story. In Florida, this snail has threatened citrus and other crops and has also nibbled stucco on houses because of a need for calcium.
For six years, Furr has worked on the Schiele Museum’s mollusk collection, which now totals more than 10,000 species.
The conference will bring together experts from North and South Carolina and Florida to share information.
Furr hopes the session will help to better survey the snail population and also teach folks how to research and study snails.
Among those who will be attending the conference is free-lance biologist Amy Van Devender of Boone. A snail expert, she’s working on the first handbook for land snails in North Carolina. The state has 260 species.
Van Devender hopes the conference will train people “in a field that desperately needs some work.”
While people “are fascinated with birds, snakes and frogs,’’ she said snails inhabit a “world that’s so small we never pay attention to it.”
The conference field trip will be on Catawba Lands Conservancy property at Redlair Farm near Gastonia.
Long pants and sturdy shoes are recommended.
Furr sees the conference as a way to increase public awareness about an important but overlooked creature.
She’s not only a snail researcher, but also likes to keep them around in jars to look at.
“They’re great pets,” Furr said. “All you need is a carrot, a wet paper towel and some eggshells – and they’re happy.”
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