Helping Snails Speed Up a Slow Science in Belize

Marine scientists working in conservation don’t often get the chance to conduct clear-cut “before and after” studies. After all, you can’t put up a fence around a chunk of seafloor to see if that helps protect it.

So you can forgive Dr. John Cigliano’s enthusiasm for his current Earthwatch expedition, Before and After in Belize: Testing a Marine Reserve. This project has conditions that may come along once in a scientist’s career: same species focus, same area, same methodology, one major change.

It’s enough to make even non-scientists get worked up about mollusks.

In this case: giant snails. Queen conch, to be specific. Pronounced like “a conk on the head,” at least if you don’t want to be laughed at by the locals.  Call them Strombus gigus—“giant spiral shell,” roughly, in Latin—if you want to impress the researchers.

Dr. John Cigliano listens to the secrets of the Caribbean in conch shells like this one. © Mary Rowe

A Research Opportunity Fit for a Queen?

These gastropods (and how can you not love an animal whose class name means “stomach-foot”?)  first showed up in the world’s oceans about 65 million years ago, as far as the current fossil record tells us. And while modern humans tend to use the shells primarily for decorations and souvenirs (so much so that it’s illegal to collect live conch shells in many US states, to protect their population), our coast-dwelling ancestors used the shells for cooking pots, knives, bowls, jewelry, even musical instruments.

But what makes these exoskeleton-clad creatures such a big deal for Dr. Cigliano and Earthwatch right now in Belize? Simply put: they’re relatively easy to spot, capture, tag, release, and track, and they play such important roles in both environmental and economic terms that keeping tabs on how they’re doing is a great way to get a sense of how the entire marine ecosystem in the region is doing.

Better yet, because of the recent establishment of Belize’s protected Sapodilla Cayes Reserve in the same area where pre-Reserve studies of conch took place, we can now collect data that should be able to demonstrate the actual impact of a specific conservation policy.

Let’s run through that again, because it’s pretty rare: Earthwatch volunteers are now able to help a scientist figure out if a specific country’s efforts to protect a specific area of its marine environment are working.

(“So, Sally and Bob, what did you do on your last vacation?”

 “Oh, a little snorkeling in Belize. And then the government used our data to help protect its reefs, fisheries, local economy, and marine biodiversity. You?” 

“Oh! Um, we, um, saw this great dinner show at the hotel.”)

An Earthwatch volunteer collects, tags, and releases a queen conch in Belize. © Mary Rowe.

One Shell of a Good Study

Here’s how it all plays out: before the reserve was established, Dr. Cigliano, with the help of Earthwatch volunteers, collected data on thousands of individual conch for several years—including where they lived, their age, and size. Now he’s working on the “After”: conducting the same studies in the same areas.  But now these areas are under the protections of the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, designed to help them recover from over-fishing.

Generally found at depths of one to 70 feet in these clear Caribbean waters, and obviously slow-moving, conch are easy to find. After a larval stage where they drift with the currents, they begin to produce their characteristic shells, mature at three to five years, and typically live between 20 and 30 years.

In Belize, they live in the ecological shadow of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second-largest coral reef ecosystem, grazing along slowly as they eat algae, and are eaten, in turn, by lobsters, skates, rays, sharks—and humans, who also use them as fishing bait.

As in most ecosystems, studying an animal at the center of such a wide web of interconnected roles and needs is a great way to get a snapshot of that ecosystem’s overall health. With nearly 80% of the world’s fisheries at or close to their maximum sustainable limits for fishing, figuring out how marine ecosystems respond to efforts to protect them is, potentially, world-changing research.

Scientists think marine protected areas are useful tools for conservation, however hard they may be to enforce. But we need the data that compares species populations before and after their establishment to really make that argument. Earthwatchers helped establish the baseline conch population data in Belize; now, just two years after the creation of the reserve, they get to help guide what the next step should be.

Feel like snorkeling for science? © Mary Rowe.

Reserving Judgment (But Not For Long)

Belize’s economy and food security are at stake here, as well: conch are a cheap source of protein for much of the population, and the second largest export in the Caribbean in monetary terms. Dr. Cigliano’s first two post-reserve Earthwatch field seasons suggest—in preliminary data on nearly 7,000 conch to date—that conch populations are improving in the study areas. Even better, local fishermen say the conch are showing up in areas where they haven’t seen them in years.

Dr. Cigliano is the first to point out—as he did at the recent Earthwatch lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London—that it’s far too soon to say whether, and exactly how, the Sapodilla Cayes Reserve may be working, for conch or other species. And the emergence of invasive lionfish throughout the Caribbean is a major “x factor” in the region, with potentially devastating effects.

But in a field where it usually takes a long time to figure this stuff out, Before and After in Belize is moving fast.

That may not be poetically fitting for a study about creatures that spend decades slogging along the sea floor, but for researchers, conservationists, and volunteers who want to make a difference, soon?

That’s a pace we can all live with.

Are these beautiful creatures making a comeback? You can help us find out. © Mary Rowe.