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A Snail’s Escape from the Eye of the Storm
Inside the race to save endangered wildlife in Hawaii amid the growing threat of climate-related storms
Water and ice are two common staples in most hurricane preparedness kits. Fungus is not.
In the face of advancing hurricane winds of 125 miles per hour, the Snail Extinction Prevention Program (SEPP) in Hawaii evacuated its field lab on Aug. 23. They placed 80 terrariums housing 2,000 rare Hawaiian snails in cardboard file boxes and transported them from a marsh on the northeast side of O`ahu to a downtown Honolulu office building. Along with the snails, a four-member crew packed purified water, mist bottles, medical gloves, several coolers full of ice packs, and an extra large portion of food — the fungus that they had painstakingly cultured in Petri dishes.
“If we get wind gusts over 120 miles per hour, our facility — a 44-foot-long modular trailer — could be damaged, or we’d lose access to the site,” says David Sischo, a wildlife biologist with SEPP.
Hurricane Lane was swirling 260 miles due south of Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest city. Yet Sischo’s team chose to move the snails directly into its path because the concrete office building could better withstand the predicted Category 3 hurricane-force winds; and it was situated in a location where, if lost, electricity would quickly be restored. Power is key to raising rare snails in captivity, after all.
“If [the] electricity goes out, the temperature could get too hot in their chambers, and we could experience mass die-offs,” Sischo says. “Our main concern was keeping them cool enough.”
“These are pampered snails.”
Just before slamming into Honolulu, Lane broke apart and took a dog-leg west, passing south of the Hawaiian Island chain. Still, the storm dumped 52 inches of rain in four days, and flash flood warnings were issued across the archipelago. Conservationists remain on high-alert, as two more hurricanes — Miriam and Norman — approach.
“These are pampered snails,” Sischo admits. At one time more than 750 known species of land snails across 10 taxonomic families existed in Hawaii. Due to habitat loss and predation, some 60 to 90 percent of snail species across the different families have gone extinct. Sischo’s team hopes to stem that loss. They monitor critically-endangered snails in the wild. If a snail species’ population drops precipitously, SEPP scoops up the remaining individuals and adds them to their captive breeding facility, where the snails live in environmentally-controlled chambers that mimic their natural habitat — misty cloud forests with temperatures between 60 and 73 degrees.
Temperature is critical. Not just to snails but to hurricanes, as well. Historically, as tropical storms move up the coastlines of Central America and Mexico, the majority fizzle out before making it to the cooler deep waters of Hawaii. During a 30-year period ending in 2010, only eight named storms have raised eyebrows in the Hawaiian Islands.
“Due to habitat loss and predation, some 60 to 90 percent of snail species across the different families have gone extinct.”
That may be changing. According to a 2013 study by Hiroyuki Murakami, a climate researcher with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University, the combined effect of warming atmosphere and warming seas may allow more hurricanes to advance across the Pacific and reach Hawaii.
If Murakami is right, hurricanes could become regular stressors to Hawaii’s already fragile ecosystem, where approximately one-third of the country’s endangered flora and fauna reside. Hurricane Lane provided a good training run.
The colorful mollusks, some as small as the width of a nickel, weren’t the only endangered species evacuated. On Kauai, the rarest plants in greenhouses at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) were moved inside a fortified building. On Hawaii Island, a pair of 70-pound Hawaiian monk seal pups in rehabilitative care at Ke Kai Ola were packed up — along with a supply of frozen herring — and taken to high ground.
“By the time a hurricane is barreling down on the islands, there is very little time for preparation,” Joan Yoshioka, state coordinator with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP), says, especially for species in the wild. That’s why conservation groups have spent decades collecting seeds and cuttings from remote field sites and distributing them across multiple facilities on different islands. Rare as they may be for now, hurricanes have made landfall in the Hawaiian Islands before. In 1992, Category 4 Hurricane `Iniki — with gusts up 175 mph — made landfall on Kaua`i and decimated populations of native plants, the most famous being the Ālula, (Brighamia insignis), a member of the bellflower family. For years, a pair of daring botanists repelled down cliffs to pollinate the last remaining individuals after the plants’ pollinator, a moth, had gone extinct. The same hurricane severely reduced the populations of numerous native forest birds on Kaua`i, including the Kama`o, which hasn’t been seen since.
“By the time a hurricane is barreling down on the islands, there is very little time for preparation.”
The most endangered forest bird in Hawaii is the `Alalā, found on Hawaii Island. Until last year, the `Alalā, also known as Hawaiian crows, had been extinct in the wild for nearly 15 years. Then, a captive-breeding program released 11 on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The crows have been provided supplementary food at feeding stations that also allow biologists to monitor their health.
Most endangered species in the wild have to shelter in place. However, when Hurricane Lane set its eye on Hawaii Island, biologists provided the `Alalā with extra scoops of food to see them through the storm. Earlier this week, after the brunt of the storm had passed, the scientists headed out to check on the birds’ welfare.
“They weathered the storm very well,” Dr. Alison Greggor, a post-doctoral research associate with The `Alalā Project, said in a press release. “We’ve seen over time that the birds have gotten much better at seeking shelter in the forest and finding natural nooks and crevices where they can hide from the rain.”
Even without making landfall, a hurricane can damage an ecosystem. Heavy rains can drench birds, compromising their ability to regulate their body temperature. Heavy winds can rip out fences installed to protect native plants from predators and fling the Islands’ precious few snails to far-flung locales where they cannot find each other to mate.
Days after Hurricane Lane was downgraded to a tropical storm, it continued to deluge areas of all the islands, flooding wetlands of native birds — likely drowning their young offspring — and washing away nesting seabird burrows. Meanwhile, the snails were returned to their field lab, with nary a flicker of lost electricity — at least for now.
Though Hurricane Lane has passed to the southwest of the island chain, all eyes are looking due east, where Hurricanes Miriam and Norman follow on Lane’s heels, reminding everyone that Lane may be history but the hurricane season in Hawaii is not.
Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Hiroyuki Murakami works as a researcher. He works at Princeton University.