Sea Snail Killers

The Science Teacher, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Sea Snail Killers


Periwinkles, the spiral-shelled snails commonly found along rocky U.S. shorelines, play a primary role in the unprecedented disappearance of salt marsh in the southeastern states, according to research published in Science.

Based on extensive field studies, the work challenges six decades of salt marsh science. Ecologists have long thought that stressed soil--too much salt, not enough oxygen--was the main killer of this critical marine habitat.

But Brian Silliman, a Brown University research fellow and a University of Florida assistant professor, said drought-stressed soils pave the way for predatory periwinkles that spread fungal disease as they graze on cordgrass.

"Snails can transform healthy marsh to mudflats in a matter of months," says Silliman. "This finding represents a huge shift in the way we see salt marsh ecology. For years, scientists thought marsh die-off was simply a 'bottom-up' problem related solely to soil conditions. We found that the trouble also comes from the top down. Drought makes the marsh vulnerable, then the snails move in."

Thousands of acres of salt marsh have disappeared from South Carolina to Texas since 2000, according to several scientific studies. …

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