The Endangered Banff Springs Snail

The most at-risk species in the park

In only a handful of thermal springs in Banff National Park (BNP) lives an inconspicuous little snail that is found nowhere else in the world. In April 1997, the Banff springs snail (Physella johnsoni) was classified as “threatened” by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). In 2000, it was re-assessed and “uplisted” to “endangered”: facing imminent extirpation or extinction. This small snail is the most at-risk wildlife species in Banff National Park. Other at-risk species in Banff include the grizzly bear (Special Concern), woodland caribou (Threatened) and wolverine (Special Concern). This small snail also made history by being the first living mollusc (snails and clams) and among the first invertebrates to be classified by COSEWIC.

This small snail is the most at risk wildlife species in the park. The grizzly bear, woodland caribou, and wolverine are all classified as "vulnerable", one rung down the ladder from "threatened". This small snail also made history by being the first mollusc (i.e., snails and clams) to be classified by COSEWIC.

Snails in "hot water"

We knew little about this unique species until recently. Seventy years passed between when the snail was first described in 1926 and when the first scientific study began. No data on snail numbers and no information on the snail's natural history, biology or role in the ecosystem existed.

Starting in January 1996, Parks Canada researchers began to determine the status and distribution of the species. This was followed by biology and ecology studies. The researchers spend most of their time on their knees - visually searching for the snails. The largest snail is about the size of your small fingernail; the majority are about half that size. Most snails are also found right at the water's surface, clinging to algae and bacterial mats, their probable food source.

Alarmingly, the park found that the snail had disappeared from four of its historic locations. In November 2002, the snail was re-established at one of its historic locations, the Upper Middle Springs, and in November 2003, re-established at Kidney Spring.

In addition it lives in five other thermal springs, four of which are in a high visitor use area at the Cave & Basin National Historic Site.

Surveys have shown that the snail populations fluctuate drastically. Low snail numbers occur in spring, just before Banff experiences its major influx of summer visitors. In the two most dramatic cases, fewer than 50 snails were counted in two separate thermal springs. The species is most at risk from natural and human disturbances when its population numbers are low.

These snails are indeed in "hot water" in more ways than one. Snails seem to prefer water between 30° and 36°C - this is slightly cooler than the average relaxing bath at 38° to 40°C. In some thermal springs, their numbers seem to follow the seasonal rise and fall of water temperatures - snail numbers drop with declining water temperature and increase with rising water temperature. Most are also found right where the spring bubbles out of the ground. Even 5 or 10 metres downstream, snail numbers decrease drastically.

Why is this Snail so Important ?

Are snails just as important as grizzly bears? You bet they are! Just as a healthy population of large carnivores, such as the grizzly bear, is used to indicate the health or integrity of a large ecosystem, healthy populations of Banff springs snails indicate the integrity of their unique thermal spring ecosystems. It's all a matter of scale.

It's also a matter of biodiversity or the variety of life. Everything on this planet is important and inter-dependent. The Banff springs snail and its close cousin found in Liard Hot Springs in northern British Columbia may offer us the last chance to learn about the unique characteristics of snails that live in thermal springs in Canada. Thermal springs are harsh environments and it takes special adaptations to survive and thrive in warm water that contains little or no oxygen, large amounts of dissolved minerals, and unique bacteria and algae.

The planet is losing species at an alarming rate, faster than ever before seen in history. World leaders formally expressed their concern about the variety of life on this planet by adopting the Convention on Biological Diversity in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It's important that Banff National Park takes the lead in protecting species such as the Banff springs snail.

Threats to the Snail

Parks Canada is responsible for the continued survival of this unique species because the entire world's population lives in the thermal springs of Banff National Park. The disturbance and destruction of the snail's fragile habitat, caused by vandalism or the illegal use of the thermal springs by humans, are major threats to the continued existence of the species.

We are increasing the protection being offered to the snail and its habitat from disturbance and destruction by humans. In February 2002, a Restricted Activity Order was issued for all the thermal springs water. This prohibits entry to any of the springs and their outflow streams at all times. This order also prohibits the handling disturbing of any organic matter or aquatic life within these springs. The Kidney Spring has been fenced off and surveillance equipment has been installed here and at the Middle and Basin Springs.

Illegal activities can impact the snail and its habitat in a number of ways. People entering and exiting the thermal spring pool can kill snails, while waves will disrupt and disturb the microbial mats. Water agitation causes the microbial mats on the bottom to lift, which will eventually clog pipes and cause water level problems in the springs. Disturbance of the mats is especially disruptive because these mats are one of the few places where snail eggs have been found in nature. Chemicals, deodorants, and insect repellents on the skin of illegal swimmers and hand dippers may also harm snails and their habitat.

What's next?

Parks Canadas long-term objective is to re-establish populations in historic thermal spring locations while maintaining the present self-sustaining populations. The Recovery Plan for the snail focuses on communication, protection, and scientific research. Recovery efforts include protection from human disturbances through the closure of some sites to the public, stepped-up surveillance, law enforcement, and fines. Communication initiatives are underway that will educate and inform local residents, park staff, and visitors about the snail. Research to document population fluctuations, micro-distribution, water chemistry and reproductive biology is ongoing. Researchers are also beginning to study the microbiology, bacteria, algae, plants and other animals within the thermal spring ecosystems.

How You Can Help

The park needs your help in protecting the Banff springs snail. Collectively we are all caretakers of the springs in which the entire world population of this snail exists. If you see any vandalism, unintentional disturbances, or threats to the snail or its thermal spring habitat, contact the Warden Service at 762-1470. For more information, visit the Parks Canada website: Species at Risk


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