Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions

Coiled up in the tiny shells of snails lie stories of loss and the struggle for ongoing life, of meaning making, of relationships, of care and disregard.

Achatinella lila, O'ahu. Photo courtesy of David R. Sischo

I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve somehow found myself captivated by snails. To be specific, my fascination really centres on the terrestrial snails of Hawai’i. From the beautifully patterned Achatinella lila that make their homes in the trees, cleaning rather than eating leaves, through to the ground-dwelling species that consume and recycle dead matter, species like Laminella sanguinea – which, incidentally, is equally beautiful but you wouldn’t know it because it covers its shell with a thin layer of its own excrement, for reasons that aren’t really fully understood.

Despite their differences, one thing that these two snails have in common is that they are both critically endangered. The Hawaiian Islands were once home to roughly 800 species of land snails, one of the most diverse assemblages to be found anywhere on earth. Sadly, however, most of these species are now thought to be extinct (an estimated 65-90%, depending on the taxonomic family). In addition, the majority of those species that do remain are thought to be threatened with extinction. Beyond species diversity, the sheer abundance of snails once found in the islands also deserves mention. Individual trees were said to contain hundreds of their brightly coloured forms; one naturalist described them as clusters of living jewels hanging from the vegetation.

The causes of this incredible and ongoing decline are complex. In the past, these snails suffered from extensive habitat loss as land was cleared for farming, ranching, tourism, the military and more. For a hundred years or so, beginning shortly after the arrival of Europeans and Americans, a shell collecting craze also decimated many species; a period that some locals at the time referred to as “land shell fever.” The remaining species today are threatened primarily by introduced predators including rats, chameleons, and most significantly of all, a carnivorous snail, Euglandina rosea, which tracks the slime trails of the local species to consume them with a disturbing efficiency.

There are many stories that might be told about the snails of Hawai’i. Indeed, my work is grounded in the understanding that storytelling about extinction and biodiversity loss is a vital task. Stories can thicken our understanding of what particular extinctions mean and why they matter; they can allow us to acknowledge and even mourn. Stories can also be transformative. They can draw us into new worlds, into appreciation, into complexity, into responsibility.

In the stories I’ve told about snails I have explored the way in which they craft slimy worlds of meaning for themselves and others, following trails to rest out the hot days together in groups before heading off to feed each night. Equally, I’ve wondered about what all these snails did in the ecosystem, has their decline impacted on the health of trees or soils? As the biologist Mike Hadfield put it to me, there were just so many of them that it hard to believe they didn’t do something, ecologically speaking. But sadly, we do not know, and perhaps never will.

The puzzle that initially drew me into snail worlds though was the question of how they all got to Hawai’i in the first place. Land snails, after all, are not known for their propensity to undertake long journeys, not by land and certainly not by sea. When we add to this fact their intolerance for salt water, the situation becomes even more confounding. With regard to their oceanic distribution, Charles Darwin noted many years ago: “Land-Molluscs are a great perplexity to me”.1 Here again, we’re unlikely to ever know for sure, but the best guess of most scientists is that Hawai’i’s first snails arrived by bird.

But amongst all these fascinating stories about snails those of Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, stand out. Without doubt the most consistent theme across numerous Hawaiian mele, oli, and mo‘olelo (songs, chants, and stories), in the idea that snails sing in the forest. But they don’t just sing at any old time. Rather, their singing is deeply meaningful, often said to occur as a sign that after a series of adventures, changes, or turbulence, all is “pono” again—all is righteous, correct, and good.2

I’ve spoken to many people about singing snails. Most biologists told me that snails don’t have vocal cords and so cannot sing. Some people told me that these stories are more metaphorical: once upon a time when the forest was full of snails, the wind whistling over their shells would have made a sound like a melody. Others thought this extremely unlikely: the shells are too small, and snails tend to assiduously keep their openings covered to prevent drying out. Yet others thought that perhaps it was the inconspicuous crickets singing in the forest, mistaken for the brightly coloured snails.

When I asked Puakea Nogelmeier, an expert in Hawaiian language and culture, about these traditional stories, he replied with a story of his own. Many years earlier, Auntie Edith Kanaka‘ole, the renowned composer and kumu hula (teacher of hula), told him and a group of her chant students that scientists had taken her to their lab to explain how impossible it was, biologically, for a snail to sing. He continued: “Auntie Edith’s take on that was: ‘Isn’t that sad, they won’t sing for the scientists.’” There are so many fascinating insights condensed in this statement. Importantly, Auntie Edith reminds us that the world, and the other living beings that comprise it, are not objects transparent to our gaze, readily revealed. There is much that we do not and cannot know about others. For this reason, too, we need multiple stories, as well as a general openness to others’ understandings, and a humility about our own. Our stories can never hope to capture all of what matters for and about another or their loss—even someone as seemingly simple as a snail.

This story also reminds us that extinctions matter differently, often unequally. What does the decline and disappearance of snails mean to people who have inherited these stories? What becomes of stories of singing snails, when there are no more left in the forest? Extinction ripples out into the world in myriad ways, cutting across imagined distinctions between ecology and culture. Good stories help us to see and become responsible for these ripples.

But these snail stories are also shifting, as new relationships and significances emerge. Over the last couple of years, I have learned more about the work of people like Uncle Sparky Rodrigues and Uncle Vince Dodge and the group Mālama Mākua. Since the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and subsequent colonisation of the islands by the United States in the late 19thcentury, more and more land has been swallowed up by growing military bases and facilities. For decades now Mālama Mākua have waged a sustained struggle against the U.S. Army to reclaim Mākua Valley on the Island of O’ahu, a sacred space that has long been used for live-fire training and munitions detonations. Snails have been a key component of this work. While cultural sites and practices long went unacknowledged, the U.S. Endangered Species Act gave these people a basis for a lawsuit, and the opportunity to bring the Army to the negotiating table.

In no small part it is as a result of Mālama Mākua’s actions that the military is now one of the largest funders of snail conservation in the islands and no bullets have been fired in the valley for over a decade. The significance of snails takes new form here as they join in efforts to resist the destruction of Hawaiian land and culture.3

I hope that through these short glimpses into some of the many stories that lie coiled up in the tiny shells of snails, your interest has been captured too. These are stories of loss and struggle for ongoing life, of meaning making, of relationships, of care and disregard. There are no simple answers here, but these stories carry with them the possibility that we might learn new modes of appreciation, of curiosity, and perhaps even responsibility, for the many incredible forms of life that are today slipping away much too quickly.

1. Charles Darwin, in a letter to Alfred Russel Wallace in 1857
2. Sato, Aimee You, Melissa Renae Price, and Mehana Blaich Vaughan. “Kāhuli: Uncovering Indigenous Ecological Knowledge to Conserve Endangered Hawaiian Land Snails.” Society & Natural Resources31, no. 3 (2018): 320–34.
3. For further information on the work of Mālama Mākua see https://www.malamamakua.org.

Growing out of a commitment to storytelling as a mode of exploring and communicating the diverse and unequal significances of extinction, The Living Archive: Extinction Stories from Oceania provides a space for people from around the region to tell their own stories, in their own ways, about what the loss of plants, animals, and places means in their lives and landscapes.

Thom van Dooren is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, and founding co-editor of the journal Environmental Humanities (Duke University Press). His research and writing focus on some of the many philosophical, ethical, cultural, and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions and human entanglements with threatened species and places. He is the author of Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (2014), The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (2019), and co-editor of Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (2017), all published by Columbia University Press.