Monday, November 26, 2007

Snails for kites

Know what this is?

It's an apple snail. For a Snail Kite, that looks absolutely delicious.

Problem is, the ongoing drought in south Florida has decreased the number of apple snails. That makes it difficult for endangered Snail Kites to find enough of their primary food source.

Scientists funded by the South Florida Water Management District are studying the feasibility of captive-breeding apple snails at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. So far, the results are promising.

Depending on water levels, scientists hope to be able to release some of the captive-raised snails this spring into Lake Okeechobee, Lake Istokpoga or Everglades wetlands.

The snails typically lay their eggs on vegetation above the water line, but snail hatchlings must drop into the water to survive. The freshwater marshes at the lake's edge are now too dry for the hatchlings, and Lake Okeechobee's water level remains more than 5 feet below normal for this time of year.

With brown shells serving as perfectly crafted camouflage, apple snails are hard to spot in the dark, marshy habitat where they spend most of their lives below the waterline. Despite the challenge, snail kites are experts at swooping low over the water to pluck the snails out of the dark waters. These crow-sized birds of prey have a hooked bill designed to pull the snails from their shells. A snail kite eats an average of 2.5 apple snails an hour when feeding, according to a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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