The Cheat Threetooth - a  Rare Canyon Snail at Risk

Triodopsis platysayoides
(Brooks, 1933)

photo by Ken Hotopp

A forested river canyon in West Virginia is home to one of the world’s rarest land snails, the Cheat threetooth, Triodopsis platysayoides (Brooks, 1933). Named for the Cheat River Canyon, where it lives in cliff crevices and rock talus, much of this snail’s habitat is at risk to road building and logging.

The Cheat River Canyon is about 16 miles long, its steep forested slopes rising as much as 1,200 feet above this powerful stretch of water between the towns of Albright in Preston County and Cheat Lake in Monongalia County. The canyon is a classic West Virginia whitewater run.

Hard, grainy Pottsville sandstone rims the canyon and its steep tributaries. Outcrops and cliffs at the top edge break off to form talus fields that flow (over centuries) down the forest slopes and pile up at the bottom, creating hundreds of hectares of Cheat threetooth habitat. The snail is also found at the mouths of caves formed by water in the Greenbrier limestone in the lower elevations of canyon walls.

Despite abundant habitat, the Cheat threetooth snail is rarely seen, as even expert snail hunters average days of searching between new finds. This elusive animal rarely parts contact with damp rock, and is often found deep beneath boulders or overhangs, or on vertical surfaces. Sweet birch and great laurel frequently shade its haunts, though it can be found in almost any canyon forest type.

Like many land snails, the Cheat threetooth has a calcium carbonate shell that houses internal organs and protects it from drying out. The spiral shell is about 22 millimeters in diameter, a little smaller than a quarter. From an opening in the shell the animal can extrude its muscular foot, and its head with four antennae. The antennae are basically noses, or chemoreceptors, although the top two antennae also include simple eyes at the tips. Its soft parts are covered with channels to circulate slime, which keeps it damp and helps with traction for crawling.

“Threetooth” is a bit of a misnomer, as it has only one, and it isn’t really a tooth – it’s a denticle, a bump of shell material in the shell opening (aperture). Most of its close relatives have three of these denticles. The denticle may help the animal balance its shell while crawling

The Cheat threetooth is most active in May, although even then it appears to pass much of its time half-extended from its shell in a zombie-like trance. However, it can move gracefully and quickly when needed. It appears to feed upon decaying leaf litter among the rocks, but may also consume items on rock surfaces such as algae and lichens. Most animals reach maturity in their second year, when the shell develops a widened (reflected) lip, and about half of the animals found are adults. Mature animals, like most of our eastern land snails, are both male and female (hermaphroditic), so both of two mating individuals may lay eggs.

The Cheat threetooth was listed as Threatened by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1978, although it was believed to survive on only a few hectares at the time. Since then it has been found over a ten-mile stretch, but a number of new threats to the animal have been identified as well.

More than half of the Cheat threetooth’s known range lies upon private timber and mining lands. Public lands anchor the north end of the Cheat River Canyon, but the Snake Hill Wildlife Management Area and Coopers Rock State Forest still lack formal snail protections. Coopers Rock, a famous Morgantown-area scenic overlook and rock-climbing spot, is where the snail was first found (the type locality). It was described in 1933 by Stanley Brooks.

Climbing and rock scrambling at Coopers Rock was identified as one of the first threats to the snail, but such activities have since been moved away from snail sites. However, road building and logging still occur on the private lands within the canyon, and are allowed on the public lands as well, under varying levels of review.

Because the canyon is steep, roads and logging (skid) trails pose a variety of fill, sedimentation, and hydrologic impacts to snail habitat. Secondary effects due to loss of tree canopy and white-tailed deer overbrowsing are also concerns, as are long range (transboundary) effects such as acid rain and global climate change.

In addition to the Cheat threetooth snail there are several other globally-uncommon plants and animals that call Cheat River Canyon home. Animals such as the Allegheny woodrat, a packrat that collects middens of ferns and mushrooms, and the green salamander, whose males guard their mate’s eggs laid in narrow rock crevices, can be found in some of the same rocky areas as the snail. Rare canyon animals include another federally-listed species, the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), listed as Endangered.

Two other rare snails have been found among the dozens of land snail species in the Cheat River Canyon – the Virginia bladetooth, Patera panselenus (Hubricht, 1976), and the delicate vertigo, Vertigo bollesiana (ES Morse, 1865).

The Cheat River canyon also harbors impressive individual “specimen” trees and small stands of old growth forest scattered through the canyon as well – turn-of-the- century loggers did not cut much in the rockiest areas, nor did they log many low-value tree species such as American beech” and shagbark hickory.

Heroes of the Cheat River Canyon include the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, which has found many Cheat threetooth sites and has supported snail research and land acquisition (from willing sellers) for many years. Various local residents, including the members of the Coopers Rock Foundation and Cheat Lake Environment and Recreation Association, have advocated protection of the snail as well as other canyon conservation.

Renewed conservation efforts by a coalition of environmental groups, spearheaded by the Friends of the Blackwater Canyon, are now underway. Their initiative to stop unregulated logging within Cheat threetooth habitat can be sustained by your tax-deductible contribution. Man and Mollusks provides a link to their website (see below).

Triodopsis platysayoides
(Brooks, 1933)

photo by Ken Hotopp


Submitted by Ken Hotopp, Principal
Appalachian Conservation Biology and Research Associate, Carnegie Museum of Natural History


News Update: PDF version of lawsuit

Charleston Gazette:  
April 12, 2005
Lawsuit filed to stop Cheat Canyon logging
By Ken Ward Jr.Staff writer

Three environmental groups have sued Allegheny Wood Products Inc. to stop the company from logging portions of the scenic Cheat River Canyon.In their lawsuit, the groups allege that the logging would illegally harm protected endangered snails and bats and important habitat for those species.

Lawyers for the groups have asked U.S. District Judge Irene M. Keeley to block the logging until Allegheny Wood obtains required permits from the U.S. Department of Interior.

"All we are asking is that AWP be a good neighbor and obey the law," said Ben Mack of the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Charleston lawyers Josh Barrett and Molly McGinley Han filed the lawsuit last week on behalf of the Sierra Club Chapter, the Cheat Lake Environment and Recreation Association and Friends of Blackwater.

The lawsuit states that the Cheat River Canyon "encases a 16-mile stretch of the Cheat River, the largest undammed river east of the Mississippi River" as it runs north from Albright in Preston County to Cheat Lake in Monongalia County.

"Throughout the canyon, Cheat River is bordered by steep sandstone walls and rock talus, and is forested by a variety of tree stands, including oak, red maple, mountain laurel and sourwood," the lawsuit states.

In late 2002, the administration of then-Gov. Bob Wise announced plans to being buying the canyon to turn it into a public wildlife-management area.

But in May 2003, Allegheny Energy announced that it had finalized the sale of 5,600 acres of the canyon and nearby Big Sandy Creek Gorge to Petersburg-based Allegheny Wood.

The two companies are not related.Since 1997, Allegheny Wood owner John Crites has been under fire from conservationists for his purchase and subsequent logging of 3,000 acres of Blackwater Canyon in Tucker County.

The Wise administration had bid $9.4 million in grants and pledges for the Cheat Canyon property.

When Allegheny Energy revealed that Crites had bid $9.75 million, the state came up with another $500,000, for a total of $9.9 million. Allegheny Energy sold to the timber company anyway

.In their lawsuit, the environmental groups allege that Allegheny Wood had, by September 2004, begun to build roads and cut trees on its Cheat Canyon land.

In the process, the suit claims, the company has violated the federal Endangered Species Act, which prohibits harming protected species or crucial habitat without an "incidental take permit" from Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service.

The canyon, including Allegheny Wood's property, contains important habitat for the threatened Cheat three-toothed snail and the endangered Indiana Bat, the lawsuit notes The timber company's Cheat property accounts for nearly a third of the snail's entire known range, the lawsuit says.

"Accordingly, if the snails are eliminated from AWP's property, this would have a devastating effect on the species' overall ability to survive and recover," the lawsuit says.

"It is impossible to conduct normal road building or logging activities in this location without some adverse impacts to this snail's habitat and likely harm to individual snails," the lawsuit says.

"Considering that the Cheat River Canyon is presently the only known habitat for the threatened Cheat three-toothed snail, Defendant's current logging and related activities - which are occurring without AWP having even applied for an Incidental Take Permit pursuant to section 10 of the [Endangered Species Act] - demonstrate complete disregard for ESA requirements," the lawsuit says.

Further, the lawsuit says that Allegheny Wood has not conducted any surveys of Indiana bats on the property, despite the known presence of caves and abandoned mines where bats hibernate.

Company officials have not "implemented the most basic protection for Indiana bats," the suit says - restricting logging until after Nov. 15, when most bats are believed to be hibernating.

In July 2003, Allegheny Wood asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare that its logging would not harm threatened or endangered species.

Agency officials declined, the lawsuit says, and "expressed concerns" that the company's activities would harm these species.

In October 2004, then-DNR Director Ed Hamrick also told Allegheny Wood that his agency was concerned about the impacts on endangered species in the canyon, the suit says.

Hamrick told the company that it needed to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, for its canyon activities. The lawsuit says that the company has never done so.

The lawsuit says that Allegheny Wood has not responded to a formal Notice of Intent to sue filed with the company in September 2004.

Officials from Allegheny Wood Products could not be reached for comment Monday

.On its website, Allegheny Wood says that it supports policies that integrate "the perpetual growing and harvesting of trees with the protection of wildlife, plants, soil and water quality.

"Working with nature to ensure the future of the nation's forests for our children and grandchildren, responsible environmental practices and sound business practices can be integrated to the benefit of landowners, customers and the people we serve," the company says.

In a section of its website about Blackwater Canyon, Allegheny Wood says that environmental groups are trying to have that area "made into a national park against the wishes of the owner.

"The right to own and manage private property is a great part of the freedom we have in America," the company says.

"It is extremely important that private property rights are respected and forest health is considered on the Blackwater Canyon and other lands throughout the United States."




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