Release of Polynesian snails marks record number of species ‘extinct in the wild’

When French Polynesia was outrun by giant invasive African land snails, another alien species, the rosy predatory wolf snail, was introduced to solve the problem.

Unfortunately the rosy wolf snail ate tiny endemic partula snails instead, hunting down the smell of their slime trail at three times the speed of a normal snail.

But the endangered partula snails are now being nursed back to health thanks to the largest ever release of an “extinct in the wild” species, with more than 5,000 of the snails returning to the island after being bred in captivity.

Thousands of partula snails belonging to 11 different species were taken by London and Whipsnade zoos, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Saint Louis Zoo in the United States, individually marked with a dot of red UV-reflective paint, and released on the island Moorea and Tahiti.

The paint ensures that the 1 to 2cm long nocturnal snail will glow under UV torch light to help conservationists monitor growing populations.

Dr Paul Pearce-Kelly, curator of invertebrates at ZSL and co-ordinator of the partula conservation programme, said: “Despite their small size these snails are very important culturally, ecologically and scientifically – they are the Darwin’s of the world. snail, when they are alone. They have been researched for over a century because of their remote habitat which provides the perfect conditions for studying evolution.

“This collaborative conservation initiative is undoubtedly helping to bring these species back from extinction and demonstrates the conservation power of zoos to reverse biodiversity loss.”

London and Edinburgh zoos rescued the last few survivors of several species of partula in the early 1990s to start an international conservation breeding program across 15 zoos.

Eleven species were saved, including the last known individual Partula taeniata sumulans variety, which was given to Edinburgh zoo in 2010 when it was brought back to a safe level of hundreds.

Another partula species, Partula fabahe was not so lucky and the nine brought to Edinburgh zoo were not successfully bred in captivity and the species became extinct in 2016.

Working with the government of French Polynesia to prepare the islands for a return with predator-proof snail reserves, the zoos began flying snails back to the wild nine years ago.

Since then, more than 21,000 partula snails, including 11 species classified as “extinct in the wild” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, have been released on the islands. It was the largest number to date that was introduced again this year.

Partula snails, also known as Polynesian tree snails, play an important role in maintaining tropical forest health by eating decaying plant tissue and fungi. Returning them to the wild helps to restore the ecological balance of the islands.

Christophe Brocherieux, project manager for the Polynesian government’s environment ministry, said: “We are proud to be partners in this program, which emphasizes the importance of not being discouraged and perseverance to achieve successful results for our projects all preserved.”

Mollusc specialist Dr Justin Gerlach of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, and another collaborator on the project, said: “The releases have shown that partula snails that have been reared in zoos for generations are very well adapted to being back in forests ancestor. .”

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