A lot of unusual things show up in L.A. when it rains: umbrellas, puddles, slow drivers. But what has the folks over at the National History Museum of Los Angeles fired up is the emergence of the moisture-loving creatures known as slugs and snails.
To capitalize on L.A.’s unusually wet winter weather and the mollusks that come with it, the museum is launching an El Niño SnailBlitz with the goal of receiving 1,000 photographs of snails and slugs via social media from “citizen scientists” around L.A. by April 14. It’s part of an ongoing museum program, Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments (SLIME for short), that’s attempting to document the state of L.A.’s population of terrestrial gastropods. It's also part of the museum’s continued efforts to get everyday Angelenos excited about the biodiversity in their own backyards.
Why care about snails and slugs? “They’re an indicator of a healthy environment,” says Jann Vendetti, Ph.D., who in layman’s terms is the museum’s snail scientist — although more precisely she’s Twila Bratcher Endowed Chair in Malacological Research — as well as the force behind this collection project. “They’re kind of like a canary in a coal mine.”
The photos and location points collected through the project will help scientists here and around the world get a better picture of how the animals have been faring in L.A., which ultimately reveals a lot about the state of our biologically diverse urban environment. The project will look at the health of snails that are endemic to the area, as well as which invasive species are making their way into the city and county.
Vendetti says she’s already been tipped off to several slugs she can’t identify. Another find, the garden Arion, is the first record of that slug appearing in the area, and the man who found it will get his name in a scientific journal with publication of the news.
Another bit of excitement for Vendetti and the NHM: two “critically imperiled” species of snail, Glyptostoma gabrielense and Helminthoglypta traskii, have been spotted in area backyards. In fact, Vendetti was so thrilled about a sighting of the latter, a brown snail with a black band, that she drove out to Altadena to have a look for herself. “If you were in L.A. 100 years ago, that’s the snail that you would find, and now you hardly ever find it,” she says.
“It was awesome. It was three generations of this family and me outside looking for the snail. It’s this beautiful snail, and it’s doing fine in their backyard.”
Getting up close and personal with snails and slugs is also a chance to dive into some snail trivia, such as, where do common garden snails come from, anyway? They’re not native. They were imported from France as food (aka escargot), Vendetti says.
As for where they go when it’s not wet, some, according to Vendetti, go into aestivation, a kind of dormancy where their metabolism slows down; in this state, snails such as the Italian snail and milk snail will attach themselves, sometimes en mass, to a fencepost or sign and pull their bodies far into their shell. “They can stay that way for quite some time,” she says. Others dig down into the soil and stay where it’s cool and moist until it rains, when they’ll come out looking for food and a mate.
The variety of snails and slugs (and their behaviors) is vast, and the NHM’s malacology department has a 100-year-old, 4 million–shell “world-class mollusk” collection that’s constantly receiving new additions, Vendetti says.
There are several ways to contribute to the scientific record and the SnailBlitz. You can add photos to iNaturalist, with which the museum has partnered for the project; you can email photos to email@example.com; or you can post snaps to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook using #SnailBlitz. Be sure to include the date of your find and the location where you saw it.
You can also join several museum staff members and scientists at Eaton Canyon Nature Center on Saturday, Jan. 16 from 10 a.m. to noon for a snail hunt. Make sure to bring a camera, water bottle, closed-toe sneakers or hiking boots and (if the weather cooperates) rain gear. There will be two more events, the last on April 16, the end of the blitz and Citizen Science Day.
A series of prizes are up for grabs for the best snail photo, best slug photo and best snail/slug meme (generated using #SnailBlitz) and rarest snail/slug photo. Not all of the prizes have been announced yet — but one is a dinner with Vendetti to chat science.