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Curiosity, Jell-O give EGLE staffer a footnote in Michigan malacology history

Kayak trip on Pere Marquette River where Sarah LeSage discovered the first invasive New Zealand mudsnails in a Michigan river.(As part of Aquatic Invasive Species Awareness Week, MI Environment features a story by Hugh McDiarmid, Jr. on the invasive New Zealand mudsnails found in a Michigan river.)

Sarah LeSage may not go down in the history books of malacology (the study of mollusks, of course!), but a lazy summer kayak trip several years ago surely earned her a footnote in Michigan snail history. All because she just can’t stop working!

Let us explain.

LeSage is EGLE’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program Coordinator. All she and her 10 girlfriends wanted was to get away from work, stress, maybe even family for their annual, sun-soaked kayak trip down the Pere Marquette River. And it was going according to plan, until “the job” literally appeared right before LeSage’s surprised eyes.

LeSage was chillin’ on a sandbar in her kayak when someone yelled  “Jell-O!” and flung a square her way. She missed, and the lime green square sunk to the bottom. Not one to waste good food (or litter the river!) LeSage went after it. Next to the quivering Jell-O, on the gravel beneath about a foot of water  was……was……what the heck was it?!

“I came up yelling ‘HOLY CRUD (or something close!) you guys look at these snails.’ They just told me, ‘Oh shut up, Sarah!’”

Unfazed by her friends’ indifference, she briefly considered whether to eat the river-water treat. “Then I ate it and used the container to collect the snails.”

Analysis by a consultant in Wisconsin confirmed that LeSage had found the first invasive New Zealand mudsnails in a Michigan river.

New Zealand mudsnails are  impressively resilient, have no natural predators or parasites in the U.S., and can reach staggering population densities, outcompeting native snails and water insects for food, with potential repercussions up the food chain.

The New Zealand mudsnail’s small size makes it easy to hitchhike along with plants, mud or debris on fishing poles, nets, waders, boots, buckets, kayaks, canoes and flotation devices and find its way to another river or stream. Anything that has been in the water or at the water’s edge should be inspected before it is packed or loaded.

Since LeSage’s 2015 discovery, the New Zealand mudsnail has been detected in five more Michigan rivers: the Manistee, Pine, Boardman, AuSable, and Grass rivers.

EGLE and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are working with a variety of partners to understand distribution, evaluate monitoring and decontamination techniques, educate anglers, and to assess impacts of this invasive mollusk. Partners include Michigan State and Oakland universities, Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Forest Service, Lake Superior State University, and citizen scientists.

LeSage says her experience is an example of how vigilant citizens can help track environmental and aquatic threats. Anyone noticing anything strange, out-of-the ordinary while in the woods or waterways can have it checked out:

Michigan's Invasive Species Program is cooperatively implemented by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Caption: Kayak trip on Pere Marquette River where Sarah LeSage discovered the first invasive New Zealand mudsnails in a Michigan river.