Conservation initiatives are under way to preserve what native snail fauna remains. The University of Hawai‘i runs a captive-breeding program and the O‘ahu Army Natural Resources Program built the world’s first snail-proof fence in the Wai‘anae Mountains to protect kahuli from predatory rosy wolf snails, plus rats and chameleons. A similar refuge is planned for West Maui.
Perhaps 90 percent of Hawaiian land snails have vanished — but no one knows for sure how many still exist. That’s why Yeung and Hayes are out combing remote Hawaiian valleys and dusty museum collections for evidence of rare pupu kuahiwi.
“We have hope there are many more out there,” says Yeung. “We just need to find them.”
Song of the Snail
Since the late eighteenth century, Hawai‘i’s land snails have fascinated European and American shell collectors — more for the beauty of their shells than as scientific specimens. After the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, it became popular for many of the world’s leading scientific museums to amass and display their own collections of Hawai‘i’s intriguing land snails, whose astonishing variety provided museum visitors with a vivid example of the British scientist’s theory of natural selection.
Certain species of the Achatinellidae family are said to possess the ability to create a high-pitched whistling sound; their “songs” have also been variously described as a chirp, a trilling sound, a “cheep-cheep-cheep” or “peep-peep-peep.”
Singing snails also figure in Native Hawaiian folklore. In “Kahuli Aku,” an ancient chant put to music by the renowned Beamer family (and sung by Keola Beamer on his 2003 album Mohala Hou), a snail uses its song to ask a bird to bring it water. And in the legend of Waipi‘o Valley heroine Lauka‘ie‘ie, the singing land snail Pupukanioe offers to help her find the man she dreams of each night.
By the late nineteenth century, numerous researchers were conducting their own searches to verify or dispel the ancient stories. Many visited sites associated with the snails and confirmed they had heard the songs — but some expressed doubts about the source. In 1913, Robert Perkins, a prominent British insect expert, conducted his own investigation and found that crickets were producing the singing attributed to the snails.
The late singer/songwriter Rev. Dennis Kamakahi touched on the controversy in his 1998 album ‘Ohana: “There’s a great scientific debate about whether it’s the land shell or the crickets you hear, but if you are from Hawai‘i, you know it’s the shell,” wrote Kamakahi in the liner notes for his song “E Pupukanioe.”—Peter von Buol