CAZENOVIA NY — Central New York is home to a cascade of water falls. Some are regal and towering. Others are discreet, hidden away in a corner of the land where only the most adventurous will find them.
Chittenango Falls, east of Syracuse, is one of these but no less magnificent for its secretive nature.
"We have a 167' waterfall, and we have a couple of really neat species that only live here. One is the American Hart's Tongue Fern, and that is an endangered plant," explains Cody Gilbertson, lead technician of the SUNY Research Foundation. "The other is a threatened snail that is aptly named the Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail."
Chittenanago Falls is the only place on earth that these snails exist. Hidden beneath the roaring cataracts, these beautiful invertebrates live a protected existence, cordoned off in a corner of the falls where park visitors are deterred from exploring. Gilbertson says there are very few left in the wild.
"There are an estimated fewer than 200 of them out in the wild, and their life span is about two and a half years, so that means that they [handle] upstate New York winters, which is, to me, really phenomenal. They can survive like two feet of snow," said Gilbertson.
The snails have been there for thousands of years, and the habitat for them is perfect.
"Because the waterfall is so high, the impact of the water coming down and splashing creates this really fine mist and keeps the habitat nice and humid," said Gilbertson.
To help them survive, researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry have set up a lab in which the snails have successfully reproduced. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Gilbertson was trying to figure out their preferred diet, which turns out to be decomposed leaves. She says that's also an important part of all snails' role in the environment.
"They break down leaf litter and dead plant material, and that turns right back in to soil. That's a really important key part of what their ecosystem service is. So they're a big part of the nutrient cycle system, and if we don't have new soil, of course, we don't have plants," said Gilbertson.
If you're wondering why so much attention is being paid to such small creatures, understand that in addition to their role in the ecology, snails and other invertebrates are also bioindicators — sensitive organisms that are a measure of the health of the environment.
"These small things, once they start disappearing, that is going to lead to a larger breakdown, isn't it?" asks 2 On Your Side's Terry Belke.
"Yeah, it's going to be very impactful because actually inverts comprise 99 percent of all the species, so they're everything, basically. If they go, then we go, for sure," said Gilbertson.