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Snailed It!

Tim Pearce has worked with the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy on its BioBlitzes, 24-hour events that catalogue wildlife of all kinds.
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uring the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy’s 2005 BioBlitz—a 24-hour inventory of living things in an area, in this case Twin Hills Park—volunteers, students and professional scientists from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History converged on the area and collected specimens day and night. One of the scientists, Dr. Tim Pearce,  found something that looked like it had no business here. It was a Maryland Glyph (Glyphyalinia raderi), which had only been found 18 times in Pennsylvania, and never in an area that wasn’t rich in limestone.

“For the longest time we had never even seen one that was alive,” Pearce says. “I’m suspecting it might have been an underground snail. They’re in Mt. Lebanon, and I thought, ‘What’s this rare snail doing in the middle of the city?’”

Turns out it wasn’t a fluke. The conservancy held another blitz in Robb Hollow and the glyph turned up again.

Pearce, curator of collections and head of the mollusks section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has been involved in several of the conservancy’s bioblitzes, which is in keeping with the museum’s mission to reach out to students and younger people. Another component of that outreach has been Pearce’s very popular snail-related TikTok videos, featuring corny jokes like “Where can you find a giant snail? At the end of a giant sfinger.” He even released a hand-washing video at the beginning of the pandemic, 20 seconds of handwashing to the tune of the Beatles classic, All You Need Is Slugs.

Snails aren’t just the tiny things that invade your garden.

“I think it’s important to be able to laugh and laugh at yourself, but also laugh at other things,” Pearce said. “So I think laughter is very important. And I guess I also think that smart people can enjoy jokes. Maybe a little bit better than not so smart people.”

Pearce has always been fascinated by nature and he was a bit of a collector himself. But he doesn’t like killing animals.

“A butterfly collection would be really nice because it’s so colorful, but you have to kill them to get the wings up,” Pearce said. “Whereas, if I found an empty snail shell, I could collect it and I didn’t have to have to kill anything.”

What’s the big deal with snails, anyway? Snails are a vital link in the food chain, Pearce said. Fireflies rely on them for food. Female birds in the springtime need the calcium carbonate from snail shells to lay eggs.

“There was a really good study done in Eastern Germany in the Black Forest, where acid rain had killed off a bunch of the snails there and the bird population crashed because they couldn’t find the calcium carbonate for their egg shells,” Pearce said. “So no snails, no birds.”

At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pearce oversees a massive library of snail shells that he can discuss in depth regardless of whatever drawer he pulls. Without consulting any reference guide, he knows the specific details about the shell he looks at and explains.

“Instead of books, we’ve got specimens,” Pearce said. “And so scientists need to know what we have. And be able to find them if they need if they want to borrow it or examine it.”

Pearce has become known throughout the community because of the museum’s marketing efforts on TikTok. He tells snail jokes that he hopes will also educate viewers.

“My hidden agenda is to spread the word about mollusks,” Pearce said. “Sometimes I’ll include a fun fact or, or some other interesting features of our model. And so I’m helping to spread the word that mollusks are really fascinating.”

Photos by John Altdorfer