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Scientists have saved a massively important species from extinction: 'They're the Darwin's finches of the snail world'

In the 1990s, the Partula snail was close to extinction because of the introduction of an invasive wolf snail species.

Partula snail, saved from extinction

Photo Credit: iStock

Partula snails were extinct in the wild, but in 2023, scientists released over 5,000 of them back into their native habitat in French Polynesia, Mongabay reports.

The Partula snail is a tiny land snail about 1/2 to 3/4 inches long with a tan and cream, cone-shaped shell. It used to be incredibly common on Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia, according to Mongabay.

In the 1990s, the Partula snail was close to extinction. National Geographic reports that in 1967, the government of French Polynesia allowed businesses to import the giant African land snail for food. Some snails escaped, and they quickly became invasive.

The giant African land snail by itself wasn't a threat to the Partula snail, but it did overwhelm farmers' crops, National Geographic says. So to control it, French Polynesia introduced another species: the rosy wolf snail, or cannibal snail, which eats other snail species.

As it turned out, the rosy wolf snail did more harm than good. Rather than focusing on giant African land snails, National Geographic says it devastated the smaller and slower Partula snail, along with 51 other species.

Only the efforts of researchers and zoos saved the Partula snail, Mongabay reports. It was declared extinct in the wild in 1994, but before that, some of the remaining snails were removed from the island for captive breeding. The ​​Zoological Society of London, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Saint Louis Zoo in the United States participated in the project.

Now, 5,522 of the descendants of those rescued snails have been returned to Tahiti, Mongabay says — the latest in a series of introductions over the last decade.

The Partula snail is a clear example of how much human actions impact the environment. Introducing new snail species to Tahiti brought the Partula snail right to the brink of extinction, but a conservation project was also able to save the species. With effort and funding, a comeback like this is still possible for thousands of other endangered species.

According to Paul Pearce-Kelly, the curator of invertebrates for the ​​Zoological Society of London, these snails also have a lot to teach scientists. "[T]hey're the Darwin's finches of the snail world, having been researched for more than a century due to their isolated habitat providing the perfect conditions to study evolution," he said in a statement about the release.

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