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October, 2014

Famous Snails

by Valerie

For a child growing up in Illinois, a trip to Florida can really spark the imagination. When I was 3 years old and living in Joliet, I saw book illustrations of marvelous creatures that could be found in the ocean. I grasped that an ocean must be a bit bigger than a lake and that is why the animals that lived there were more varied and colorful. Starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, and seashells could be found washed up on beaches, and Florida was the place for beaches. I just had to visit this incredible destination.

My accommodating parents took me on a camping trip in the summer of 1961, during which we traveled around Florida, visiting the fabulous beaches, tropical gardens, and the Everglades. The trip was a dream come true. I liked Florida so much that we returned a few years later, and by the time I was 10 years old, I was about as familiar with tropical environments and marine life as a Midwestern kid could be. Not only had I seen the real thing, but I scoured field guides, biology books and travel brochures for pictures and information about these exotic beasts.

In the 1970s, we discovered garage sales as a cheap and entertaining summer pastime. My mother, sister and I would cut out ads from the newspaper, circle the locations on a laminated map, and work out our route for a Friday morning expedition into neighboring towns to see what we could find. Besides clothes, tools and furniture, people often disposed of old magazines, with the highest price being 5 cents. They were more often 10 for a dime, or just thrown into a "free" box. Among dreary titles such as "Family Circle," "Good Housekeeping," and "Popular Mechanics" were gems like "Audubon," "Scientific American," and "National Geographic." I quickly realized that the pictures in this last publication were the best I'd ever seen. I could easily sift through a pile of magazines and find the distinctive yellow bordered issues, many of which had articles about fabulous and bizarre wildlife.

One National Geographic article that caught my attention was "Threatened Glories of Everglades National Park," in the October, 1967, issue. It was about the Florida Tree Snail (Liguus fasciatus) and featured a 2-page spread showing all 52 color varieties known at that time.

Up until then, I had only seen land snails that were brown. They were mostly small and not at all eye-catching. Here was an account of land snails that were not only large but also colorful. Extremely colorful. Like the difference between the boring brown freshwater snails of my home state and the gorgeous saltwater species found in Florida, here was more proof that the grass is always greener (or at least the snails more spectacular) on the other side of the proverbial fence. I realized that I must have been in close proximity to these marvelous mollusks during my time in the Everglades, but had just not paid enough attention to find them. Now that I was aware of their existence, it would be a simple feat to see them for myself.

Over the next couple of decades I visited south Florida a few more times, and even moved to the state to attend Florida State University for my masters degree. Every time I was in the Everglades, I thought about the tree snails and looked for them in the foliage. I never found a single one.

By the time my parents had moved to Ocala and I periodically visited them, sometimes taking trips to the southern tip of the state, I had pretty much given up on ever seeing the lovely snails that had so captivated me many years before. When I was in the Everglades, I enjoyed the birds, insects, alligators and characteristic scenery, but the snails were always in the back of my mind. Had they really been as endangered as that old National Geographic article asserted? Maybe they were so rare that I had little chance of casually finding one. Of course, it wasn't like I was trekking through the hammocks in any determined way and deliberately searching. We did what most tourists in the area did: drive the road to Flamingo, stopping at the short hikes and boardwalks along the way.

My last trip to the Everglades was in October, 2007, with my mother. By this time, I had a digital camera and thoroughly enjoyed photographing the unusual flowers, impressive alligators and extremely approachable birds. We again drove the highway down to Flamingo, exploring every roadside attraction as usual. Boardwalks are generally my favorites, as the view over the water, without getting my feet wet, is enjoyable. However, we also stopped at other sites, including the Pinelands Trail in Long Pine Key. This short hike is not as popular as those with more open water, so its appeal is more in quiet seclusion rather than spectacular wildlife. As we started down the narrow path through the tall pines, I photographed some nice wildflowers and definitely appreciated the moist piney scent. Then I saw something that took me completely by surprise. There was a Florida Tree Snail, right about at eye level on a small tree! It was brightly colored, and its shell looked like it was made out of glazed porcelain. There was no mistaking the identity of this animal. I photographed it and started to look for more. No disappointment there - we found dozens of the mollusks along the trail. Each one had a different pattern, from all white to deep maroon, and I happily photographed the lot. They were all about the same size (1.5 inches or so), and it seemed odd to not find some that were younger. What really amazed me, though, was that we were seeing so many different shell colors in one small area. I had gotten the vague impression from the old magazine article that isolated populations tended to have particular forms. Of course, I was delighted that was not the case.

Although the entire day was eventful and we saw plenty of other wildlife, that particular trip will always stand out as the one on which I discovered the elusive tree snails. A curious coincidence about this encounter is that it occurred exactly 40 years after "Threatened Glories of Everglades National Park" was published in the National Geographic magazine, that I later bought for a nickel at a garage sale.

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