Molly Wiebush knelt in a shady spot by a downed log, turning over rocks and shredding rotten wood as she searched for signs of gastropod life.
Spending the summer chasing snails and slugs has given the Idaho Fish and Game technician an appreciation for how elusive the forest decomposers can be. Snails the size of sequins are difficult to spot. And with their camouflage coloring, slugs blend into the leaf litter on the forest floor.
“It’s really like a treasure hunt,” said Wiebush, admiring the variegated markings on a hemphillia, or jumping slug, that she pulled from a piece of bark.
New efforts to document wildlife in the Idaho Panhandle and northeastern Washington include the often-overlooked inhabitants of streams, ponds and decaying vegetation. This is the world of frogs, toads and salamanders, slugs and snails. The surveys are part of the Multi-species Baseline Initiative, an ambitious endeavor to collect information on 20 less-studied creatures so their habitat can be managed to reduce the risk of population decline.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is the lead agency for the initiative, which is partly funded through a $950,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant. Other state, federal and tribal agencies are partners in the five-year data collection effort, which will continue through 2015.
Winter field studies focused on seldom-seen forest carnivores – wolverines, fishers and lynx. This spring and summer, survey crews donned waders for amphibian counts and set out traps for slugs and snails.
Michael Lucid, 38, oversees the project for Idaho Fish and Game. He formerly worked in the agency’s wolf recovery program but considers the multispecies initiative his dream job.
“It’s the excitement of discovery,” said Lucid, noting how scarce information is about the region’s amphibians and slugs and snails. “We’re still describing the biodiversity of the region.”
Some aspects of amphibian life are fascinating for their oddity. Western toads breed in large groups, and field crews stumbled across ponds with egg masses the size of cords of firewood. Survey work included looking for the Coeur d’Alene salamander, which has no larval stage. The salamanders are the size of a penny when they hatch, and they grow into finger-length adults with rusty stripes on their backs. They live in wet rock piles and waterfall spray zones.
A slug species thought to be rare turned out to be quite common. The magnum mantle slug, last documented in Lolo Pass in 1968, was frequently found in surveys.
Why is this kind of information important? There are several reasons, Lucid said.
Fish and Game’s charter is to “preserve, protect and perpetuate” Idaho’s native species. Having baseline data creates an early warning system, allowing managers to react if a population starts to trend downward. That can keep animals off the federal endangered species list and under state management, Lucid said.
In addition, scientists are interested in how climate change will affect native frogs, toads, salamanders, snails and slugs.
“We expect to see changes in those populations sooner than big mammals,” Lucid said. “They have porous skin that interacts with the air. We suspect they are more reactive to things in their micro area.”
Each of the 800-plus survey plots is outfitted with instruments that record temperature and relative humidity. The data will help describe the specific microclimates where species live. Survey crews also take note of common plants found at the site.
Knowing the preferred habitat will help wildlife managers with big-picture planning, Lucid said. They can work to ensure that suitable habitat for the region’s amphibians and gastropods remains, even if habitat locations shift over time.
And, “if you’ve ever seen a kid catch a frog, that’s one more reason to keep amphibians around,” Lucid said.
Though frogs are fun to catch, Wiebush – the Fish and Game technician – found herself enthralled by slugs and snails this summer.
“They’re beautiful animals, really,” said Wiebush, 30, a recent Colorado State University graduate who describes herself as somewhat squeamish. She overcame that to appreciate the feel of a slug crawling across her hand. The slug’s radula, or scraper, is rough like a cat’s tongue, she said.
Wiebush and her colleagues counted more than 500 slugs and snails at one site near Boundary Creek. Sometimes, the technicians conducted timed hunts – counting as many slugs and snails as they could find in 15 minutes. Other times, they were documenting what they found on traps – uniform pieces of cardboard soaked in discount-brand beer and buried just below the surface.
The beer-soaked cardboard consistently had higher slug and snail counts than cardboard soaked in water. But why gastropods are attracted to beer remains a mystery, said Lucid, who’s been reading scientific literature on the topic. In recent studies, neither the fermentation nor the calories appeared to be the draw, he said.
Fish and Game’s field work could lead to breakthroughs in understanding amphibian and gastropod behavior, Lucid said.
If you’re observing a single wolverine, it’s hard to spot trends. However, “if you have 10,000 slugs, you can do some pretty powerful (statistical analysis),” he said.