22 Aug Meet Mauritius’ Snail Expert: Owen Griffiths
22 August 2023
While other little boys were obsessed with tractors, Owen, the joint director of Ebony Forest, La Vanille Nature Park, Bioculture and Biodiversity Conservation Madagascar dreamt of snails. Mauritius, with over 125 known indigenous snail species, many of which were discovered and identified by Owen, was a perfect place to call home.
What ignited your passion for snails?
As a very young lad I was interested in sea shells. Then I joined the cubs and we went camping in the bush south of Sydney. We were told to collect firewood (that is no longer done as fallen wood is part of the ecology of the forest but this wasn’t recognized in the late 1960s). Adhering to the underside of one piece of wood was Meridolum corneovirens– an endemic New South Wales land snail. It was love at first sight!
Owen’s first love, Meridolum corneovirens. Photo source
To most people, snails are not endearing or charismatic, but slimy garden pests. Convince them why they are wrong?
If you saw beyond just a few garden snails and saw the beauty and diversity of their shell form and colour, their often fascinating lifestyle (the idea of cupids love arrow may well come from the love darts that snails of the genus Helix fire into each other prior to mating) and their ecological importance, you could be convinced.
A snippet of terrestrial snail shell diversity. Photo source
Most of the remaining 125 native Mauritian species are at risk of extinction, why are Mauritian snails worth saving?
Why is any of our biodiversity worth saving??!! I am not a fan of the school that teaches that such and such a species is worth saving because of its special role in the ecosystem – even if that is so. Mauritian snails, found nowhere else in the world are part of the richness of life on earth and their loss is a permanent loss. For me that is reason enough to try to save them.
What is your favourite Mauritian snail, extinct or living, and why?
Gibbus lyonetianus undeniably. Sadly it is extinct. It was last known alive from the Bassin Blanc area in 1914. Why? Have a look at it. For snailers, it is the iconic snail of Mauritius. Like the Dodo to birders!
Gibbus lyonetianus. Photo by Owen Griffiths
What’s the top threats to snails and what can be done to save the island’s remaining endemic snails?
Habitat destruction. Saving and restoring what forest we have by removing invasive alien species is priority, not just for snails, but so many other species. This is why my wife and I are committed to restoring and recreating endemic forest at Ebony Forest, Vallée De L’Est and Montagne Longue.
You are a successful businessman, have you ever tried combining your expertise in business and snails?
Indeed yes. In 1986 we set up a business exporting the frozen cooked meat of the introduced gros coupas –Achatina fulica and Achatina immaculata. The meat came from wild collected snails of these two pest species. However in 1987 the ‘Loi de L’Appellation’ as relates to snail meat in France changed. From then on Achatina meat could no longer be sold as ‘Escargot’ but rather as ‘Escargot Achatine’. ‘Escargot’ was reserved for European snails of the genus Helix. That simple change destroyed the market for Achatina meat at that time. Today, the snail eating public has gotten used to Escargot Achatine and its global trade is more than $50 million annually. But by then I had moved on! In the south of Mauritius one can easily collect 2-3 tons of live snails daily! In this case wild harvest is the way to go. No point in captive breeding.
Have you discovered any species new to science?
Yes many, in particular in China, Australia and the SW Indian Ocean region.
Some of the snails named after Owen (i) Kalidos griffithshauchleri; (ii) Clavator griffithsjonesi
You have a very understanding wife, if I am not mistaken, your holidays, weekends and large part of your house is dedicated to snails and snail mania. What is the craziest thing that Mary-Ann has had to cope with?
Probably braving the Shining Path Guerillas in eastern Peruvian Andes in 1983 looking for Peru’s largest snail – Megabulimus poplerianus. As we approached the region there was an army road block. The commanding officer said in no uncertain (but perhaps exaggerated) terms that further down the road was death. They suggested I do without the snail and save my life and that of my young bride. Mary-Ann sided with the army. Good call? Who knows but I never collected that snail.
You have travelled the world looking for snails, if you were to create a SnailAdvisor website, what would be your top 5 places for a snail enthusiast to visit and why?
That is easy. The limestone areas of (i) Vietnam, (ii) Fynbos areas of South Africa, (iii); Madagascar, (iv) Peru, and (v) Papua New Guinea.
Any places on your Snail Bucket list?
Sure. Solomon Islands; West Africa; Socotra.
If someone is wanting to take up snailing, what equipment and tools do they need and how do they get started?
Gloves, hand rake; cotton bags and good local knowledge about where snails may be. The later based on some literature research.
Owen is a Research Associate of the Australian Museum and expert in Indian Ocean snail taxonomy, as well as spearheading the first conservation actions of Mauritian snails. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund supported early captive breeding attempts of Pachystyla bicolor, which was followed up by a grant from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Foundation in which this species was captive bred at La Vanille Nature Park and reintroduced to Vallée De L’Est. If you want to learn more about Mascarene snails, then you can purchase Owen’s book, co-authored with Dr Vincent Florens, and available for purchase in shops at Ebony Forest and La Vanille Nature Reserve.
Owen’s book, available at Ebony Forest and La Vanille Nature Reserve.