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Precious Escargot: Extinct snails head back to the wild

Posted on: 14 September, 2023

Extinct in the Wild tropical tree snails bred by ectotherm keepers at Bristol Zoological Society have been flown more than 15,000km to Tahiti to be reintroduced to their French Polynesian island home.

Eight species of Partula snail, totalling 2,194, were bred at Bristol Zoological Society, Whipsnade Zoo, London Zoo and Edinburgh Zoo, as part of the collaborative Partula Snail Conservation Programme. It’s co-ordinated by international conservation charity ZSL and French Polynesia’s Direction de l'Environnement. Many of these species were wiped out in the wild, 30 years ago.

Whipsnade invertebrate specialist Tyrone Capel, who helped rear the tiny snails at ZSL’s conservation zoos, has travelled to the island and already released hundreds of the fingernail-sized animals onto the volcanic island of Moorea.

Tyrone said: “Partula snails, when born, are roughly the size of a grain of rice and can grow to about 2cm, so you need to be very delicate with them. We packaged the snails carefully in tissue and cardboard tubes for their 22-hour flight, and a few days later the team and I trekked three hours into the forests of Moorea to release more than 1,600 Moorean Partula snails into the wild.

“As you can imagine snail releases are very slow, but it was incredible to watch them gradually propel themselves up into their natural tree habitat. All the hard work getting them there was worth it for that moment.”

Since 2015, conservationists have reintroduced more than 24,000 Partula snails onto the French Polynesian islands, with each year’s release painted with a dot of a different coloured glow-in-the-dark animal-friendly ‘snail varnish’ - so that their individual progress can be monitored with the help of a UV torch light.

More than 550 remaining snails will be introduced to their new homes on the neighbouring islands of Huahine, and Tahiti over the next week. Alongside releasing the new snails, Tyrone will conduct night surveys alongside French Polynesian Environmental Department colleagues to track past breeding programmes outcomes. 

Nigel Simpson, Head of Zoo Animals at Bristol Zoological Society, said: “As a conservation and education charity working in nine countries across four continents, we are extremely proud to be a part of this vital collaborative breeding project, which is giving the fight to save these species a significant boost.

“The successful breeding at Bristol Zoological Society of the 39 Partula navigatoria and 136 Partula varia that will be a part of the Tahiti release, is testament to the hard work of our dedicated ectotherm keepers who have managed and bred these important species, increasing the zoo population size sufficiently to allow a reintroduction to take place. 

“This programme highlights the important role of conservation zoos and charities in helping to breed and protect those species in most need of our help.”