Northeastern Iowa holds a 400,000-year-old time capsule. Rather than vast, flat prairies, this region boasts a rolling landscape of bluffs and ravines spared by the earth-tamping force of the last Ice Age’s glaciers. And nestled in the leaf litter on rubble piles beside the area’s chilly bluffs lives a tightly coiled, quarter-inch endangered snail.
Discus macclintocki, the Iowa Pleistocene snail, was once-common but is now a highly specialized snail that lives in pockets of Illinois and Iowa, where underground ice keeps the ground above 14 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and below 50 degrees Fahrenheit in summer.
But an increase in human development to the region has threatened the snail’s existence. And climate change may well cause the snail to meet its final end as our overheating planet cuts into the snail’s habitat. Amid the extinction crisis, larger, charismatic animals receive much of the spotlight. But we’re losing plant and invertebrate species like Discus macclintocki the fastest, and they have their own stories to tell.
The snail inhabits The Driftless Area, where the Mississippi River flows between Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. This rugged region holds little evidence of glacial till or sediment left across much of the surrounding land by receding glaciers from the Pleistocene era that spanned from around 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago. That lack of glacial till or “drift” is the source of the region’s name. Today, much of the area consists of plateaus carved by ancient erosion from snowmelt draining into the river, drainage patterns that don’t match the previously glaciated land, and landforms like mesas, bluffs, and pinnacles exposing bedrock.
Among the gorges are a specific kind of habitat called algific talus slopes, which are piles of rubble beside the bedrock cliffs they detached from. Ice in sinkholes beneath and near the slopes cool the air in the summertime and warm it in the wintertime, resulting in small patches of plants typical of more northern locations, like evergreen trees including Canada yew and balsam fir. In essence, a glacial-era habitat remains there. Threatened species like the small, blue Northern Monkshood flowers and at least nine glacial relict snail species, including the Iowa Pleistocene snail, live there.
Scientists thought that the species of snail whose lineage stretches back 400,000 years was extinct until 1928, when they found it on these algific talus slopes, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1977. Today, it lives on at least 36 known sites across Iowa and Illinois, though research suggests there could be more. The International Union for Conservation of Nature does not list the species as endangered, citing that surveys have turned up more locations than previously thought, though they have not updated their assessment since 2004.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protects the snail by restricting access to its breeding habitats—but they still consider it threatened by the potential for human development such as “logging, quarrying, road building, sinkhole filling and contamination, human foot traffic, livestock grazing and trampling, and misapplication of pesticides.”
Beyond these local threats, there’s also the overarching threat of climate change. Rising temperatures imperil the snail’s incredibly specialized habitats by melting the ice that keep temperatures cool and air moist. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin ranked algific talus slopes as an ecosystem of “moderate to high” vulnerability to climate change, which in turn imperils the already endangered snail. Fish and Wildlife Service calls it a “major long-term cause of snail population decline.” No wonder Iowans are so worried about the climate crisis.
The Iowa Pleistocene snail’s story is typical of many of the world’s most-threatened and recently extinct species: unassuming invertebrates inhabiting a tiny and fragile habitat that humans could easily wipe off the map, intentionally or accidentally. Curbing the extinction crisis requires caring about more than just the charismatic megafauna at zoos, but also these tiny denizens.