Crawlies with Cri: by Christy Solo

(Photos by Christy Solo, Illinois Valley News)

Amber snail (Family Succineidae)

This week’s critter puts the “crawl” in Crawlies. Meet the amber snail (Family Succineidae).
While there is only a hint of amber on the shell of our pictured amber snail, all amber snails have translucent shells, many of those amber in hue.
Beyond “most have amber hued shells” there is a huge variety of coloration even within each individual species of amber snail. To deduce which species of snail – or even which genus – is which, scientists must use DNA.
Unless you really want to know which amber snail you’ve come across, knowing who’s who to genera or species isn’t that important.
There are some non-native amber snails in Oregon, which isn’t great, but isn’t horrible either – so don’t panic.
In fact, you’ll never see amber snails at all unless two factors come into play:

  1. You are near water. Very near water. While not aquatic, amber snails need to be right next to ponds, lakes, creeks or rivers.
  2. You are looking very closely for amber snails. The pictured snail is under one-quarter of an inch in size. Amber snails max out at three-quarters of an inch.
    Sometimes amber snails will aggregate in nurseries because the eggs are accidentally imported with plant purchases. Even then, they don’t pose a threat to the plants, but can be considered “pests.”
    Overall amber snails are beneficial snails. They eat bacteria, fungi, algae and diatoms, helping to enrich soils.
    So, what the heck is a “diatom”?
    Diatoms are algae that live in houses made of glass. They are the only organism on the planet with cell walls composed of transparent, opaline silica. Diatom cell walls are ornamented by intricate and striking patterns of silica. They’re also tasty. To very small critters at least.
    Diatoms produce long-chain fatty acids and are an important source of these energy rich molecules that are food for the entire food web.
    Because amber snails are little tiny snails, they eat little tiny food. They do this without the benefit of having jaws or teeth. What they do have is a radula, which is pretty radical! It is an elongated sac lined with thousands of tooth-like projections. With their rad radula, they scrape and digest their food versus chewing it.
    Not only do amber snails eat without chewing, but they can reproduce without a mate. Baby amber snails (and all snails) hatch out of their eggs as males. When they reach full maturity, they become female.
    Somewhere in between they can self-fertilize.
    When they do mate with other snails, mature ladies necessarily mate with not yet fully mature males (because there are no fully mature males). It takes about a year for an amber snail to fully mature and they can live for up to two years.
    But wait, there’s more! Amber snails are so dependent on moisture they have a nifty survival trick for dealing with brief dry periods. They can estivate up to 10 days if things get too arid.
    Estivating is a bit like torpor or hibernation, but it specifically applies to critters who need a damp environment. While critters who hibernate do so to get through cold weather, those who estivate do so to get through hot, dry weather.
    So if you do see an amber snail in your garden, don’t panic! These non-pesty gastropods are part of nature’s clean-up and soil enrichment crew. They’re darn pretty to boot.