It is said that artists are never fully appreciated until they die. The same goes for snails, apparently.
For roughly a decade, the land snail species Achatinella apexfulva, which used to be plentiful on Oahu, was believed to be down to a single survivor. His name was George, and he lived his last days alone in a terrarium in Kailua, Oahu, alongside an ample supply of fungi (a food his ancestors liked to scrape off leaves in the wild).
But Jan. 1, George died, according to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. He lived to about age 14 — a good, long life for a snail of his kind, experts say. His death was symbolic of a steep decline in the population of land snails, once a fantastically diverse group of mollusks in Hawaii, as well as the rapid extinction of species around the world.
Scientists estimate that dozens of species go extinct each day, but few receive this kind of media attention on their way out. Naming George probably boosted his standing, said Michael G. Hadfield, who founded a program meant to protect snail populations in Hawaii.
“You anthropomorphize it and people pay attention,” Hadfield said.
The snail’s caretakers named him George after the only survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises of the Galapagos. George the tortoise, known as Lonesome George, died in 2012.
George the snail was born in the early 2000s to parents that had been captured in the mountains in an effort to protect them from predators.
At first, George had about 20 contemporaries, but they all died relatively suddenly, said David R. Sischo, who now directs the state-run Snail Extinction Prevention Program. Staff members at the program suspected that the snails died because of a pathogen, Sischo said, but George somehow survived.
“Against all odds, he still persisted,” he said.
Although George’s death was not unexpected, the team at the laboratory in Kailua felt the loss.
“He’s been a constant for a really long time,” Sischo said. “If anything good comes out of this extinction, it will be the recognition that we have a lot to lose, and we don’t have a lot of time.”
At one point, there were more than 750 species of land snails identified on the Hawaiian Islands. George’s species was the first to be described in Western scientific literature: When British explorer Capt. George Dixon visited Oahu in the 1780s, he was given a lei made with some of the snails’ shells, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
But estimates suggest that more than half of those species are already extinct, Sischo said.
The land snails have been affected most by invasive predators like rats and the rosy wolfsnail, which eats other snails. They have also faced habitat destruction and the effects of climate change; drier conditions have reduced the inhabitable land on the islands, Sischo said.
Documents from the 19th century described land snails as hanging off plants like clusters of grapes, said Hadfield, who is now a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Hawaii. In the 1980s, Hadfield more often saw them lying dead on the ground.
After the plight of the land snails gained some attention, the entire Achatinella genus was listed as endangered in 1981. Hadfield said the genus might have gotten preferential treatment because its snails are often the most striking to behold.
“There are bright gold ones, there are pure white ones, there are unearthly greens,” he said. “Most of us feel that these snails, outside of where they’re being protected, probably won’t last much longer.”