Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator

Friday, March 16, 2018

Psst, Buddy! Wanna buy an Apple Snail?

Editor’s Notes –This is the sixth (and final) installment in my series on the general topic of freshwater snails in the aquarium hobby.  Previous posts have been “What’s Out There?” [9Oct17], “Loved to Death?” [6Nov17], “Pet Shop Malacology,” [21Dec17], “Snails by Mail” [24Jan18], and “Freshwater Gastropods and Social Media” [14Feb18].  It might help you to read (at least) my previous (February) post on this subject before going on to the essay below.

This essay was subsequently published as: Dillon, R.T., Jr. (2023c)  Psst, Buddy!  Wanna Buy an Apple Snail?  Pp 57 – 61 in The Freshwater Gastropods of North America Volume 7, Collected in Turn One, and Other EssaysFWGNA Project, Charleston, SC.

First let us clarify the situation as pertaining to law.  In addition to their broader body of regulations regarding the movement of gastropods generally, the Feds have a set of explicit restrictions regarding the importation and movement of ampullariids [1].  Quoting the USDA-APHIS verbatim: 
“aquatic snails in the family Ampullaridae (e.g., Pomacea canaliculata, channeled apple snail), with one exception, may not be imported or moved interstate except for research purposes into an APHIS inspected containment facility. One species complex in the family Ampullaridae, Pomacea bridgesii (diffusa) may move interstate without a permit because these snails are not known to be agricultural pests but are primarily algae feeders. An import permit is required for aquatic snails in order to verify species and examine shipments for contaminants that are agricultural pests.” [2] 
Note that it is not illegal to own, buy, sell, trade, breed or propagate invasive apple snails of the maculata/insularum/canaliculata type, conventionally abbreviated IAS.  Naturalized populations of IAS are already widespread in certain regions of the United States.  I, living in South Carolina for example, could easily gather Pomacea maculata from any number of local retention ponds in my area and enjoy them in my home aquarium.  I cannot, however, ship them to my friends in North Carolina, nor carry them in a cooler up I-95.  Nor can my Tarheel buddies come down here and fetch any.

So in last month’s [14Feb18] essay I shared my impressions from 30 days of monitoring the conversation on a Facebook group called, “Snails, Snails, Snails.”  I tallied eight mentions of IAS during that month, including four separate appeals for purchase, and concluded: “Without a doubt, significant pent-up demand exists within the community of aquarium hobbyists for large, invasive apple snails.”

"Last round of Peruvian Apple Snails"

I didn’t mention it at the time, but I am mentioning it now, because I think it is especially significant.  Among the eight mentions of IAS I logged during my 30 days of observation on Snails, Snails, Snails was one offer to sell.  A pet supply store in South Dakota named “Woofs & Waves” posted the photo above, simply captioned, “Last round of Peruvian Apple Snails for the season.”

This post generated 10 comments, plus about 25 associated replies.  Comments included, (1) Cooooool!! and (2) Oh I wish I could get those, and (3) I want one so bad!  He’d do great in my 110! and (4) what does he charge for those?  Where is he located?

The reply to the previous query was, “$9.99, Sioux Falls.”  Then this discussion followed: “I am sure they wold ship if you asked nicely” and “Pretty sure they can’t cuz those are illegal in many places” and “Yeah, South Dakota is pretty lax on wildlife stuff unless you’re poaching.”

I think that independent aquarium stores may be the primary agents for the introduction and spread of invasive apple snails around the USA.  The survey I posted in December [21Dec17] satisfied me that the big-box pet stores don’t sell them, and the desultory survey of major online retailers I published in January [24Jan18], including Amazon and Ebay, didn’t turn up any.  Are Mom-and-Pop independents, which in the patois of social media are called “LPS” (local pet stores), the well from which North American populations of invasive apple snails spring?

Following this hunch, last week I made a field trip across town to the only independent aquarium store in the Charleston Area, a really handsome shop with great stock and a knowledgeable staff called, “Tideline Aquatics.”  And in addition to the usual assortment of mystery snails and nerites and rabbit snails [4], I found offered for sale a small batch of “jumbo gold mystery snails,” maybe six or eight head in the lot, crammed timidly into the corner of an aquarium on the bottom rack, behind the filter.  These are clearly not our benign little friend Pomacea diffusa/bridgesii.  These are invasive apple snails.  Click for larger:

NOT Pomacea diffusa
And more than just any random IAS, my local pet store is apparently stocking golden-form apple snails, of a kind widely introduced throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands.  We don’t host any golden morphs at all in the populations of Pomacea maculata naturalized here in South Carolina.  I’ll bet dollars-to-donuts that the stock of “Jumbo gold mystery snails” for sale a few miles from my house originated from Asia, probably from dealers not unlike the ones surveyed by Ting Hui Ng and her colleagues in 2016 [5].  See figure #14 in the Ng et al. plate I shared with you all back in October [9Oct17].

And here we also reprise a theme I developed in December [21Dec17] – the mysterious origins of aquarium stocks worldwide which, like any other commodity I suppose, it behooves suppliers to protect.  And the plasticity of the names attached to such stocks.  Common use and legal precedent has developed such that “apple snails” are bad and “mystery snails” are good.  So the “jumbo mystery snail” has been born, to mysteriously arrive at an independent aquarium-stock retailer near you.

And so we have now come full circle, which means that it is time to sum up.  I am charmed, genuinely charmed, by the widespread interest and heartfelt love often demonstrated by aquarium hobbyists toward our mutual friends, the freshwater gastropods.  And I think such interests should be encouraged, if for no other reason than they might blossom.  I cannot see how harvest of wildstock freshwater gastropod populations for the aquarium trade could endanger such populations, at any imaginable harvest rates.  I can see, however, a problem with the spread of invasive species.

Here a tiny and obscure freedom, escaping the notice of our founding fathers, is associated both with a tiny societal benefit, and a tiny hazard.  I can’t think of any solution to the tiny hazard, beyond what we’re already doing.  Let’s just leave that freedom alone, shall we?


[1] And I should immediately stipulate that some states have their own regulations more restrictive than the Feds.  Our good buddy Joshua Vlach from the Oregon Department of Agriculture informs me that Oregon has a five-page list of invertebrates that are ALLOWED to cross its state lines, and all others are prohibited [3].   The bottom line is the same for IAS, however.  Go home!

[2] US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.  Plant Health / Import into the US / Permits / Regulated Organisms and Soil Permits / Snails Slugs.  [html]

[3] This reminds me of a scene from one of the Peanuts videos, where Violet and Lucy tell Charlie Brown, “There were two lists, Charlie Brown.  There was a list to invite, and a list NOT to invite.  And you were on the WRONG LIST!”

[4] The shells of the “Rabbit Snails” were completely encrusted with calcification.  Absolutely unidentifiable.  The ugliest gastropods I have ever seen in captivity.

[5] Ng Ting Hui, Tan SK, Wong WH, Meier R, Chan S-Y, Tan HH, Yeo DCJ (2016) Molluscs for Sale: Assessment of Freshwater Gastropods and Bivalves in the Ornamental Pet Trade. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161130.  https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161130