December 5, 2021

Celebrating snails

Groton woman educates about little-known gastropods

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Snail specialist Marla Coppolino places her snails in a bathroom diorama at her home.

GROTON — As a little girl playing in her New Jersey home’s backyard, Marla Coppolino lifted a rock and found tiny snails — only a few millimeters in size.

“These tiny snails opened a huge world for me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to learn more about them.”

Now, Coppolino, who lives in Groton, is deemed the “Snail Wrangler” for her quirky educational, artistic and advocacy efforts for snails. She has become known for her ability to manage snails for film and photographs, including photos of snails positioned on miniature furniture.

It’s something she does whenever she’s not working at Cornell University getting companies to license and commercialize technology for the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization.

Snails play an essential role in the ecosystem, Coppolino said. They are a source for nutrients like calcium when they become prey for other animals.

Her interest to dig deeper into a snail’s life led her to the library where she repeatedly checked out the same book — “Life in a Bucket of Soil,” by Richard Rhine. Although it had only one chapter, five pages dedicated to snails, it was Coppolino’s first information about the animal.

“Just that little bit of information made me want to look at snails, watch snails, study snails and watch their behaviors,” she said. “This was a perfect spiral shell, a perfect little animal having a hidden world and that was so exciting. It had this hidden secretive world and micro environment under the rock. It sort of reminded me of that story by Dr. Seuss — “Horton Hears a Who,” which is one of my favorite children’s books.”

As she got older and went off to college, Coppolino kept reading about snails from peer-reviewed journals while taking zoology classes at Georgia University because the major malacology — the study of snails — wasn’t offered. She would graduate with a master’s degree in zoology with a focus on the diversity and abundance of snails in ecosystems.

“They’re animals that are mindful and thoughtful and slow and important and humble,” she said.

Coppolino has also been featured on both the Discovery Channel and National Geographic to tell her story of becoming the “Snail Wrangler” and educate people about snails.

Coppolino displays white-lipped snails at her home in Groton on Sept. 18.

Alexandra Gaulupeau, a documentary filmmaker from Australia worked with Coppolino to create a piece for National Geographic about snails.

“Marla was fascinating,” Gaulupeau said. “Her passion for snails led her to study snails through different medium in science and art. Her scientific knowledge fuels her artistic practice. She educates and informs through her knowledge while mesmerizes and entertains with her diverse artistic expressions.”

Fun facts

• North America has more than 1,000 species of snails.
• About 100 species of native snails live in New York.
• Slugs are a snail species that have evolved not to need a shell.
• Snails grow their own shells.
• Their eyes are at the end of long tentacles.
Source: Marla Coppolino

As much as Coppolino does with snails, she doesn’t like to be called the Northeast expert.

“I haven’t contributed nearly enough science publications as some of my colleagues,” she said. “I’m an advocate for understanding their ecology, for the protection of endangered species of snails,” she said. “I’m an advocate for education about why they’re important to an ecosystem.”

Coppolino does summer camps, classes, nature journaling programs and artwork, among many other artistic and educational outreach at various schools and places like Lime Hollow Nature Center. She is working on children’s books about snails because she said more publications on snails are needed to garner people’s attention.

Gaulupeau said she sees Coppolino as an activist for snails.

“I think I see her as an activist for a truly underrepresented animal species,” Gaulupeau said. “They have never grossed me out, but I never really questioned much about them,” Gaulupeau said. “It’s easy to see why some animals are important, why some are considered beautiful or cuddly, but some animals don’t get that much attention, even though they have a huge role to play.”