How is the Island Apple Snail spreading so rapidly in Florida?

According to FWC’s data presented at the end of my last post, the Island Apple Snail (Pomacea insularum) was found in less than 1% of Florida’s public waterbodies in 2006. Five years later, its range has exploded to 22% the state’s lakes and rivers. How is that possible for an animal that moves an average of only 14 meters/week (Darby et al., 2002)? None other than Charles Darwin (1859) was also “perplexed much” when contemplating wide distribution of certain freshwater snail species among the distant Pacific Islands.

There are two modes of range expansion for organisms: active and passive. The active mode for mollusks is at a proverbial “snail’s pace.” Nevertheless, snails are common globally, including desert oases and newly formed volcanic islands. Clearly, mollusks possess an extraordinary capacity for passive means of dispersal. In the case of P. insularum, I have witnessed them using temporary buoyancy to move easily with the waves across lakes or with the current of creeks to rapidly float downstream. Such passive mobility can easily explain dispersal within a given watershed. However, I have also seen this primarily-aquatic species quickly and inexplicably appear in newly-constructed, isolated ponds. Passive dispersal by human activities is well-documented and, therefore, usually blamed, but I wonder. Range expansion in such far flung areas just seems too commonplace. There cannot be that many hobbyists recklessly dumping aquaria!

Charles Darwin (1859) conducted an experiment on a theory proposed by Lyell (1832) that external transport by birds is the most likely passive dispersal mechanism of freshwater snails: “I suspended the feet of a duck in an aquarium; where many ova of freshwater shells were hatching; and I found that numbers of the extremely minute and just-hatched shells crawled on their feet, and clung to them so firmly that when taken out of the water, they could not be jarred off, though at a somewhat more advanced age they would voluntarily drop off. These just-hatched mollusks, though aquatic in nature, survived on the duck’s feet, in damp air, from twelve to twenty hours; and in this length of time a duck or heron might fly at least six or seven hundred miles, and if blown across the sea to an oceanic island, or to any distant point, would sure to alight on a pool or rivulet.”

Many researchers after Darwin have been equally “perplexed” by the rapid and/or long distance dispersal of slow-moving mollusks, but a scientific consensus is developing. Vagvolgyi (1975) concluded that small body size facilitated the dispersal of land snails across broad expanses of ocean: “Support to the hypothesis is provided by the facts that land snails have been recovered from the plumage of birds [and] that recently formed volcanic islands have been colonized predominantly by minute land snails.”

In a study of 50 springs widely scattered across the arid regions of Australia, Wilmer et al. (2008) determined that “short range dispersal of aquatic snails occurs via active movement facilitated by aquatic connections among springs while long-range dispersal is likely facilitated by an animal vector (phoresy).” Aubry et al (2006) stated that passive dispersal of an invasive snail in France relied on “a behavior, called the ‘climbing reflex’ – - one of the main and most efficient features in the process of passive dispersal.”

Clearly, the theory that birds transport aquatic snails is not new.  In fact, it is no longer a theory but has been demonstrated convincingly, both experimentally and by field observations. “The pulmonate land snail Balea [has]even managed to travel over thousands of kilometers of open ocean, from Europe to the Azores and the Tristan da Cunha islands, and back again” (Gittenberger et al., 2006). In the case of the Island Apple Snail, I wonder if the “climbing reflex” is innate behavior for newly-hatched juveniles. It would certainly be easy for such small snails to attach to the legs of wading birds frozen in their common fishing stance.

To test that theory, I went back to my favorite experimental site, Wellman Pond, and placed 30 bamboo stakes with diameters similar to those of the legs of wading birds near hatching egg clusters of P. insularum. Upon return, I carefully inspected each stake and found only one juvenile snail. Quoting Gittenberger (2012) again, “Long-distance dispersal implies a series of unlikely events. However, time is available and a single snail may be sufficient for a successful range extension.” In Florida, the distance from lake to lake is relatively short. It seems reasonable to conclude that the rapid range expansion of the Island Apple Snail is via passive dispersal on the legs wading birds. Posted by Jess Van Dyke

4 Responses to “How is the Island Apple Snail spreading so rapidly in Florida?”


  1. 1 Cyndi Perkins September 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Fascinating and informative site, thanks for disseminating this important info. I learned about the invasive snails three years ago when I first spotted those tell-tale day-glo pink eggs on my mother’s dock posts near the Indian River watershed – and she had been collecting the super-sized shells. Coincidentally we were also coping with an infestation of Cuban tree frogs. I’ll continue to monitor this site to keep abreast of any new developments or advisories. Again, thanks!

  2. 2 snailbusters1 September 18, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    Thank you, Cyndi! Florida is in the cross-hairs when it comes to exotic introductions. Most people don’t understand the ramifications. I’m still focusing on Pomacea, but, lately, I’ve been working with DACS on the Giant African Land Snail infestation in Miami. It’s a nasty beast!

  3. 3 Robn June 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Here in Alabama apple snails have been laying their eggs on storm water litter. The City of Mobile never removes storm water litter once it reaches the water (dumb). Snails eggs attached to floating styrofoam and trash are then swept downstream and are subject to wind, current, and tides.

  4. 4 snailbusters1 June 14, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    I’ve seen the same thing here, Robin. Invasive species are such opportunists. I have an image somewhere of egg clusters on a floating computer monitor!


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About Snail Busters

The Snail Busters Blog was created to facilitate communication between aquatic resource managers who are fighting the spread of invasive, South American apple snails, specifically Pomacea maculata (formerly P. insularum) and P. canaliculata, in the U.S.

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