What is the Banff springs snail?

A grouping of Banff springs snails
The Banff springs snail is especially vulnerable at the beginning of the main tourist season, when human activities pose the greatest threat.

The thermal springs found at the Cave and Basin National Historic, and all along Sulphur Mountain, support Banff National Park's most endangered life form: the Banff springs snail.

This fascinating mollusc is found nowhere else on Earth!

Although this species was discovered in 1926, scientists did not begin to study it until 70 years later, in 1996. Much still remains to be learned about the Banff springs snail, which made history in 1997 as the first mollusc to be designated/ listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Although the largest snails are about the size of a kernel of corn, the majority are about half that size. It is easiest to spot them when they cling to algae, bacteria, sticks or rocks at the water's surface, where they must go to breathe. The snails have dark eyes and a shell that spirals to the left. (Most snails have shells that spiral to the right).

Where does the Banff springs snail live?

The snail inhabits Kidney Spring, Upper and Lower Middle springs and four other thermal springs at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site on Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park. Two of these populations were recently re-established. They had been extirpated from some of the ponds where the species had originally been found in the 1920s. Only in these unique hot springs do the right biological, chemical and geological conditions converge to form the habitat that supports this mollusc.

A map showing Banff springs snail range in Banff National Park and the world.
The snail inhabits Kidney Spring, Upper and Lower Middle springs and four other thermal springs in Banff National Park.

What's the status of the Banff springs snail?

The snail population goes up and down with the seasons. When it is at its lowest, the entire population of Banff springs snails would fit inside an ice cream cone. At its highest, all of the snails would fit inside a one-litre milk carton!

The Banff springs snail is protected by federal law under Schedule1 of the Species at Risk Act. COSEWIC designated the species threatened in 1997, upgrading it to endangered in 2000 because of its extremely limited distribution, the many threats to its habitat and significant fluctuations in its population numbers. The Government of Alberta has ranked the Banff Spring snail at risk.

What's so special about the Banff springs snail?

A cluster of Banff springs snails
Most Banff springs snails inhabit the part of the spring where the water gurgles up from the ground.

What makes this snail special is the rare and harsh environment it inhabits. Thermal springs contain little oxygen. However, high concentrations of dissolved hydrogen sulphide gas and minerals are present, and even some radioactivity! The springs are also home to unique algae and bacteria.

Most of the snails on Sulphur Mountain inhabit the part of the spring where the water gurgles up from the ground. Here they enjoy their preferred temperatures of 30 to 36 degrees Celsius (a bit cooler than bath water).

Why is the Banff springs snail in danger?

A colony of snails clinging to dead leaves on a mat of purple bacteria
By bathing or dipping their hands in the water, people may unintentionally disturb or kill snails as well as their eggs.

The world's entire population of Banff springs snails is confined to tiny patches of rare, unique and fragile habitat. In fact, the snail's entire habitat amounts to an area the size of an average Canadian house-170 m2 - all of it within Banff National Park.

The Banff springs snail could easily become extinct unless we protect its habitat. It has already disappeared from some of its historic range. The population seesaws dramatically, with the numbers at their lowest from March to June. This makes the snail especially vulnerable at the beginning of the main tourist season, when human activities pose the greatest threat.

Any factor that affects the thermal spring ecology could harm this species. By bathing or dipping their hands in the water, people may unintentionally disturb or kill snails as well as their eggs. Even minor movements in the water can upset the floating microbial mats on which the snails feed and lay their eggs. Chemicals such as insect repellants and deodorants on people's skin can also harm the snails and their habitat, as can changes in water levels.

Natural threats to the snail may include competition from soldier fly larvae and predation by waterfowl, thrushes, garter snakes and robins, as well as the drying up of thermal springs resulting from global climate change and drought.

What is Parks Canada doing to help save the Banff springs snail?

Research and monitoring

Close-up of a Banff springs snail
The snail has dark eyes and a shell that spirals to the left

To facilitate the recovery of the Banff springs snail, Parks Canada has been collecting scientific data on every aspect of the snail and its habitat, from the chemistry of the spring water to the flora and fauna that make up the thermal spring ecosystems. Aquatic specialists have completed an inventory of the algae, mosses and invertebrates of the area. They've surveyed the plants in many of the Sulphur Mountain thermal springs. They've even studied the dragonflies and microbes.

The snail's reproductive biology and ecological role is an area of particular interest among park biologists, who also collect information on the snail's population dynamics and its distribution within the various thermal pools and their outflow streams. Scientists regularly monitor the physical and chemical attributes of the water at all of the springs the snail has inhabited. Among the readings scientists take are temperature, pH (acidity), salinity (amount of salt) and dissolved oxygen. Scientists also monitor spring flow rates, water levels and the degree of disturbance to the snail habitat. The more we can learn about this rare snail and its habitat, the better our chances of saving it from extinction!

Recovery actions

The Banff springs snail is the very first living mollusc to be assessed as a threatened species by COSEWIC.

Although the snail once occupied nine of the thermal springs on Sulphur Mountain, the populations in four of the springs declined and eventually disappeared. A plan for the recovery of the snail was approved by Parks Canada in 2002. This plan outlined steps for re-establishing Banff springs snail populations in two of the thermal springs where it once lived. Reintroduction efforts began in 2002, when 50 adult snails were taken from Lower Middle Spring to seed a new colony in Upper Middle Spring. Although their numbers initially declined, the population quickly began to increase. A year later, the operation was repeated at Kidney Spring, with the introduction of 50 adult snails. Today, snail colonies are thriving in seven of the thermal springs on Sulphur Mountain.

Meanwhile, park biologists are doing everything they can to protect and enhance the snail's fragile habitat. Banff springs snail sites are protected under the federal Canada National Parks Act, as well as under the Species at Risk Act. Some sites have been closed to the public, and the park has increased surveillance and security measures, erected signs prohibiting all disturbances, and imposed fines for vandalism, trespassing and unlawful activities. The installation of a motion-sensitive surveillance and alarm system at the Basin Spring pool has helped cut down on illegal swimming.

Public education

Thermal springs are sensitive ecosystems and, throughout the world, several species of thermal springs snails have become extinct in the last 100 years. Parks Canada is working to ensure that Banff's most endangered species won't suffer a similar fate.

Raising public awareness about the plight of the Banff springs snail is an important milestone on the snail's road to recovery. As its long-term prospects for survival depend on our willingness to take responsibility for its survival, fostering a sense of stewardship among local residents and park visitors is all that is keeping this species from extinction.

Park staff and others conduct educational workshops and guided walks targeting elementary and secondary school students, scientists, teachers and outdoor educators, and tour operators. Other educational initiatives include the presentation of scientific papers at regional, national and international conferences and work with the local and national media to raise the profile of the snail. Reporters and elementary school students have participated in snail recovery efforts and the snail has made it onto the pages of local, regional and national newspapers. It was even featured on the Discovery Channel!

Interpretive displays at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site chronicle recent research and recovery efforts. Informative signs and posters keep local residents, park staff and visitors up-to-date on how the snail is faring.

Working with partners

Parks Canada is working with several partners to maintain and enhance the current snail populations and to re-establish populations in the springs they once inhabited. Some of these partners include:

  • Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada
  • World Wildlife Fund Canada
  • Friends of Banff National Park
  • Geological Survey of Canada
  • University of Calgary
  • University of Manitoba
  • Bow Valley Naturalists

How can I help?

Poster featuring the Banff springs snail
© Government of Canada / Mark and Leslie Degner / 2001
  • Respect the habitat of the Banff springs snail when you visit Banff National Park. Contact parks staff immediately if you see any vandalism, unintentional disturbance or threats to the snail or its hot spring habitat.
  • Respect the after-hours closure of the Basin spring at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Penalties for ignoring closures can result in fines of up to $5 000.
  • Remember, just as healthy grizzly bear populations reflect the integrity of Rocky Mountain ecosystems, healthy snail populations reflect the integrity of thermal spring ecosystems. It's all a matter of scale!