Climate extinction: Nature's "forest gems" at risk?
July 2, 2017
Not all animals are created equal; some are fluffy, with big bulging eyes that make us coo, while others are slimy, warty or misshapen, making us recoil in disgust. Yes, not all animals are equal and this is particularly true when it comes to climate change. Ask anyone what species stands to lose out most and they’ll probably say polar bears, penguins or, at a hopeful stretch, coral. But there’s 8.7 million species out there – granted most have yet to be discovered – including all those ugly and curious little critters who could disappear as our climate changes.
Take tree snails for instance. Innocuous as they may seem, they can be beautiful in their own way. While beautiful is a word few would attribute to snails, more known for their viscous goop and voracious appetite for prized leaves, the species in the subgenus Amphidromus boast some pretty snazzy shells that seen them dubbed “the gems of the forest”.
A tree snail (Amphidromus adamsii) in Malaysia. Their delicately designed shells have earned them the name "gems of the forest". Photo by Bernard Dupont/ Flickr
Now, a recent study, published in the journal Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, has laid out plainly the risk these creatures face from climate change. Of five subspecies studied in Thailand, the authors say there may be a 40 percent reduction of their range by 2050. Already, these species are at risk of vanishing from forests because the trees they need to survive are being logged out or torn down for plantations. Meanwhile they are picked from the trees for the commercial trade, all thanks to those beautifully ornate shells that nature designed for them.
Snail shell selling is nothing new. They have long been used to adorn outfits as jewellery or their colourful patterns have helped them play important parts in local mythology. One study showed that the Pacific island tree snail, Partula hyalina, was traded by prehistoric Polynesians from the island of Tahiti, where they were endemic. The trade was so lucrative that they were deliberately introduced to the Cook Islands and the Australs from Tahiti, presumably to undercut the trade and promote local production.
Already tree snails in the Amphidromus subgenus, perhaps true to their stereotype, aren’t the best at expanding their territory, and for the most part remain confined to small patches of forest. They are also picky about needing closed canopy forest to live under, so felling their habitat for a new piece of furniture is a death sentence.
Amphidromus perversus. Their shells are traded and sold as ornaments or jewellery, few know that such a trade is driving tree snails to extinction. Photo by Udo Schmidt/ Flickr
Add climate change to this mix of tree-cutting and snail-picking and things don’t look to good for Amphidromus. It’s predicted that Thailand is going to warm by 2.1°C by 2050, with some saying 20 percent of the country’s species, both animal and plant, face being wiped out as a result. According to the scientists who conducted the study, Amphidromus already lives at temperatures that are verging on too hot for it to survive. Any small increase and they may vanish.
It will never cross most of our minds that a changing climate is going to cause the extinction of a lowly tree snail, because we are focused on the polar bear, floating away on its lonely ice cube. But in the vast web of nature, those tree snails are another thin thread that is being torn apart by a combination of human emissions, human consumption and human vanity. If we look beyond the megafauna, we see that there’s a vast number of species still clinging on that are worth protecting, however gooey they may be.