RIP George, the Last of His Species

©. Courtesy of DLNR

George's species fell victim to cannibal snails introduced to combat African snails, one of Earth's worst invasive species

George the snail has died. George was the last known member of his species, the Oahu Treesnail (Achatinella apexfulva).

George was born in a University of Hawaii laboratory, the only survivor of attempts to propagate the species in captivity. Although Treesnails are hermaphrodites, having both male and female sexual organs, people refer to George as a "he" to align with his name, which commemorates the Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise, “Lonesome George,” also the last of its species.

He lived at a facility of the Hawaiian Department of Land & Natural Resources (DLNR), where he was a popular educator for a generation of children learning about the threats to land snails and the snail extinction prevention program operated by DLNR.

He made it 14 years, to new year's day 2019, before "shuffling off his mortal coil". In George's case, the term popularized by Shakespeare seems particularly appropriate, thanks to the yellow and chestnut whorls spiraling up the shell of the Oahu Treesnail. When the snails proliferated in the lower elevations of the Ko‘olau Mountains on Oahu, natives used the beautiful shells for lei decoration.

George's tragic snail tale is but one in an epic saga of environmental devastation visited upon snails on the Hawaiian Islands, where it is estimated that 90% of species diversity has been lost. Biologists blame habitat destruction, especially by pigs, goats, and deer (all of which are introduced species on the islands) and snail cannibalism. Specifically, the native tree snails have fallen prey to the "cannibal snail" aka the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea).

Ironically, the rosy wolfsnail was brought into Hawaii on purpose in 1955, in hopes that they would eat the troublesome African land snail, Achatina fulica, itself an invasive species, now listed as the second worst invasive alien species by the Global Invasive Species Database.

Now, hopes to save what is left of the native land snails of Hawaii rests on another new notion: the use of CRISPR gene editing tools could be used to combat the invasive cannibal snails. If the program can succeed to eliminate the threat, there is a chance that the Oahu Treesnail could once again decorate the flora and leis of the Hawaiian islands. A piece of George's foot has been saved in the San Diego frozen zoo, as a potential source for cells to clone the species once that technology matures.

Until then, RIP George. RIP Achatinella apexfulva.