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Phoenix Zoo Makes A Mini Monsoon For Super Small Snails

Can a mini monsoon machine save a super small snail? Bradley Poynter sure thinks so.

He leads the conservation team at the Phoenix Zoo, and recently faced a problem when trying to get certain mollusks to mate.

“Those land snails come out only when it rains,” he said. “They come out to eat, they reproduce and, as soon as the rain stops, they kinda cyst back up for the dryer weather.”

So Poynter and his team are creating a habitat that rains at the push of a button. His plan isn’t too high-tech at the moment; he thinks he’ll just need a plastic lid, a drill and some hoses.  

“You take the lid and you drill a hole in the plastic about every quarter inch or so … whatever area you want it to rain and then you just take an additional hose and just run it and create monsoon season!” He said. “If we want to get really fancy, we can get a speaker system and a strobe light for thunder but I think the rain will probably be enough to do it.”

It’s a model adapted from the zoo’s current set up, which conservation technician Whitney Heuring just got up-and-running. This one doesn’t rain, but Poyner and Heuring got the rest down. It looks just like a natural stream, complete with a stream bed, running water, algae and plants all in a giant blue tub.

“It really mimics that natural environment they would be living in,” Heuring said while gesturing to the water flowing over rocks into a small shallow pond. From there, the water is filtered down and reused.

Poynter and Heuring feel confident undertaking this new project because they’ve recently had some big successes.

They were members of the team that oversaw the first captive breeding of the Three Forks Springsnail, a critically endangered species. They’re also successfully sustaining a colony of Huachuca Springsnails, which have never before been studied in a lab.

The largest Huachuca Springsnails only grow to be about three millimeters tall. The Three Forks Snail is bigger — clocking in at a whopping four millimeters. These two teeny tiny snails are only found in Arizona and are essential to the state’s stream ecosystems.

“They're a food source for other invertebrates, and so if you start taking away a food source, then you start losing the predators and then the animals that eat those animals and the system kinda goes on,” said Poynter.

Additionally, these snails are like the canary in the coalmine of water contamination. Scientists pay close attention to their numbers because if the snails start dying, they know the water could be unsafe for cattle and humans downstream.  

“Even though a snail might not seem important, it really does have its own special place and so it's important that we look at all the species and help all the species that are endangered,” Heuring said.

A big problem with studying these small snails is their size. Even after spending all day working with them, the duo has a hard time finding even one Huachuca Springsnail in the stream prototype.

“I hire much younger people with much better eyes,” Poynter joked while peering over the side of the plastic tub and gently lifting a leaf of an aquatic plant.   

In a nearby tank, Three Forks Springsnails cluster around algae formations. They’re just tiny dots on the glass and even when you’re actively looking it’s hard to differentiate their shells from other debris.

The conservation team at the Phoenix Zoo has been trying to breed these springsnails for years.

“We’d get about 200 in and they live 12 to 18 months and then they would kind of just fizzle out,” he said.

But after trying and failing, and trying and failing, it appears a third time's the charm.

“Well either the third or the fourth,” Poynter said while laughing.

Thanks to a very expensive water filter, a specialized tank and help from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Poynter and Heuring started seeing baby snails in May. In the painstaking daily count, their numbers held steady.

“We all got really excited about that,” he said.  

Now that the team knows they’re not losing snails en-mass, they’re expanding their efforts to the monsoon machine.

The hope is that by building this contained ecosystem that mimics the natural world, they’ll be able to house multiple snail species at once. They’ll have the spring snails in the water and then land snails and other invertebrates around the stream.

But instead of waiting all year for rain like the rest of the state, these snails will get a monsoon storm from the comfort of their enclosed habitat.

Poynter says this will be more efficient. He can house, breed and study multiple species with the same staff. But it is going to take some time to get this monsoon machine up-and-running.

"It makes things difficult because, sometimes, you want to change a bunch of things at once, and if you do that and something works, you don't know exactly what it is that caused that change," he said. "It's a big learning curve.”  

And so the team is beginning the long process of trying and failing and trying and failing … until they get it right and can use the snails bred in the monsoon machine to repopulate ecosystems throughout the state.

Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer at KJZZ from 2015 to 2019.