When Birds Overshadow Snails -- And Why That's a Problem

ByABC News
May 6, 2005, 11:33 AM

May 9, 2005 — -- When bird enthusiast Bobby Harrison realized he had spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker, once thought extinct, he "put his face in his hands and began to sob," according to his fellow searcher and Cornell University ornithologist, Tim Gallagher.

When Jeff Garner, Alabama's state mollusk biologist, collected two snails that were thought to be extinct, it took him a while to figure it out.

"I really just got a bag of snails from the river bottom and brought them up to the boat. Then I noticed the little pointed ones," said Garner, who made the discovery last summer in Alabama's Coosa River.

Both discoveries were announced in the last two weeks and, needless to say, Garner's snail find was a little less dramatic and greeted with much less fanfare. Still, many scientists would say that the finding of the cobble elimia and nodulose Coosa River snails is no less significant than the spotting of the majestic ivory-billed woodpecker.

In fact, some argue the differences in reactions to the discovery of these very different kinds of animals reveal an underlying problem when it comes to conserving species and determining when they're extinct: Big and pretty animals get all the glory. And this might mean we're often not even aware when we're losing species.

"Scientists are as susceptible as anybody to the biases that give us a fixation on mammals, birds, other vertebrates and flowering plants," said Mark Burgman, a botanist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. "Everything else is a long last. But then everything else makes up more than 90 percent of all living things."

Of course, finding any species once thought to be extinct is positive news. In the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the bird's discovery was a sign that efforts to restore the bottomland hardwood and swamp ecosystem in Arkansas have been making a difference. The snail finds, meanwhile, show that clearer waters and currents have been restored to the Coosa River.