What Can Snails Tell Us About Water Quality?

Pete McIntyre
Pete McIntyre

For the past 20 years, biologist Pete McIntyre has traveled to Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, Earth’s second-largest freshwater lake by volume, to study freshwater snails found nowhere else in the world. McIntyre, a professor with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains why these snails are important and what they tell us about pollution in the lake.

Q: First off, why study snails?

A: The snails of Lake Tanganyika are very diverse by freshwater snail standards. They’re interesting biologically, but we can also use them as sentinels for change in the environment. Unlike fish, they’re stuck at the bottom of the lake. So if some aspect of the environment changes, they’re also stuck with whatever bad things happen to the system.
Snails are painted bright shades of nail polish so they're easier to locate after they've been put back into Lake Tanganyika. Photo: Ellen Hamann
Snails are painted bright shades of nail polish so they’re easier to locate after they’ve been put back into Lake Tanganyika. Photo: Ellen Hamann

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