Searching for Springsnails in Arizona

Field crew

“I found one! Wait, no, that’s a pebble.” That was my refrain recently when I went out in the field to search for springsnails with Jeff Sorensen, a.k.a. “the snail guy,” from Arizona’s Game and Fish Department. We met up in Sonoita one morning and headed out to explore an area near Parker Canyon Lake on the west side of the Huachuca Mountains. Joining us were Jeff’s intern Kim and Sami Hammer, a Pima County ecologist and former SIA staff member.

The sky threatened and eventually deluged as we pulled up to park near one of the marshy cienegas. We got out of the trucks in a downpour and walked over to the first spring. Unfortunately this spring continues to be trampled by cattle, but state wildlife officials had released some springsnails here, and we were looking to see if the population was stable. With the booming thunder and fat raindrops plopping all around us, we found just one springsnail at this first site.

Better luck followed. At another spring nearby, located within the streambed, I saw my first springsnail. The rain had let up, and I was carefully picking up leaves and twigs and looking for the characteristic whorl of these tiny animals. Then I found a few more at the same site. Kim counted about 30 at the spring source, so I worried that maybe I wasn’t very good at this. But Jeff assured me I was helping and sometimes there are just fewer snails in an area. While doing our spring surveys that day, we also found damselfly larvae, riffle beetles, diving beetles, a big spider, and Arizona tree frogs. Just another day for these fascinating creatures.

Searching for springsnails

At the final spring we surveyed, I began my search for springsnails in an area full of tall grasses, where the water flowed in a smaller channel. I didn’t see many snails. But then I picked up a piece of leaf litter — and voilà! There were nine tiny springsnails clustered together. It was the biggest group of snails I had seen all day. Amazing how something so small could deliver such joy.

I feel a lot more confident now that I’ll be able to locate these snails if they’re present at any of the springs I visit, and I hope to be able to contribute to research on these animals in the future. Not many people realize that we even have snails in the Sky Islands, but we do and they’re important recyclers, breaking down plant material and providing food for other animals.

Want to learn more and get involved? 

Check out this past February’s virtual Coffee Break with Jeff to learn more about desert snails. And stay tuned for volunteer opportunities to join us in the field on our next surveys. The snails are out there; we just have to look for them!

Photos by Jeff Sorensen/Arizona Game & Fish Department.