Curiosity, Jell-O gives EGLE employee a footnote in Michigan malacology history

Kayaking tour on the Pere Marquette River, where Sarah LeSage discovered New Zealand's first invasive mud snails in a Michigan river.(As part of Aquatic Invasive Species Awareness WeekMI Environment features a story by Hugh McDiarmid, Jr. about the invasive New Zealand mud snails found in a river in Michigan.)

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

Let’s 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-filled kayak trip down the Pere Marquette River. And it went according to plan, until “the job” literally appeared before LeSage’s astonished eyes.

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

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

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

Analysis by a Wisconsin consultant confirmed that LeSage had found New Zealand’s first invasive mud snails in a river in Michigan.

New Zealand mud snails are impressively resilient, have no US natural enemies or parasites, and can reach staggering population densities, outnumbering native snails and aquatic insects for food, potentially impacting the food chain.

The New Zealand mud snail’s small size makes it easy to hitchhike with plants, mud or debris on rods, nets, waders, boots, buckets, kayaks, canoes and flotation devices and make its way to another river or stream. Anything that has been in the water or on the waterfront should be inspected before packing or loading.

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

EGLE and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are working with several partners to understand its distribution, evaluate monitoring and decontamination techniques, train fishermen and assess the effects of this invasive mollusk. Partners include Michigan State and Oakland Universities, Trout Unlimited, the US Forest Service, Lake Superior State University, and citizen scientists.

LeSage says her experience is an example of how vigilant citizens can help identify threats to the environment and water. Anyone who notices anything strange, unusual while in the woods or on the water can have it checked:

Michigan’s Invasive Species Program is jointly run by the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Caption: Kayaking tour on the Pere Marquette River, where Sarah LeSage discovered New Zealand’s first invasive mud snails in a river in Michigan.

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