Sequatchie Cave State Natural Area, Tennessee — A royal snail is about the size of a match head. You could be standing in a few inches of water with lots of royal snails at your feet, look down, and not even see them.
"If it looks like a caterpillar turd but it starts moving, that's a royal snail," cracks David Withers, a zoologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
A Sequatchie caddisfly, by comparison, is a lot bigger. A larva is about an inch long, and before it sprouts wings, later in life, is pretty much indistinguishable from a tiny twig.
One of the only two places these two are known to co-exist is Sequatchie Cave State Natural Area, a 12-acre park a few miles west of Chattanooga that includes Sequatchie Cave. The peaceful, shallow water that flows out of the cave provides ideal conditions for the bug and snail to call home.
David Withers shows off seven royal snails and two caddisfly larvae in a medicine cap. When he's finished explaining their importance, he carefully places them back exactly where they were. (Photo: Phil Kloer/USFWS)
Withers bends down and plucks a caddisfly out of the spring. He's an expert on the species, but you would think he's seeing one for the first time from his enthusiasm.
"Awesome! Look at this guy!" he exclaims. "Look at these red and black legs." He places it carefully in a white plastic lid from a pharmacy medicine bottle, which will be his specimen home for the morning.
The royal snail is only found in Marion County. In 1994, the royal snail was declared an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the caddisfly didn't need the protection of the ESA because it was not in danger of becoming extinct in the foreseeable future. It remains a rare insect however, and the service would like to ensure ESA protections aren't needed in the future.
"The caddisfly is a resilient little critter, eking out a living on just a few hundred yards of this small stream," says Drew Becker, ESA recovery coordinator for the service's Southeast region. "It makes sense to take care of a place like this so we don't have to list it. It's proactive conservation."
And plenty of partners have stepped up to take care of this little Sequatchie park.
Earlier this year, the service awarded $52,500 to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and the state of Tennessee added at least $37,500. Then a combination of paid and volunteer labor went to work on major improvements at the park.
The peaceful, shallow water that flows out of Sequatchie Cave provides a perfect habitat for the endangered royal snail and the Sequatchie caddisfly. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Tennessee and volunteers have been working to make sure the spring stays pristine. (Photo: Phil Kloer/USFWS)
For years, local families have used the spring for recreation and drinking water. Inadvertently, some of these activities were damaging the stream bank, and there was a danger of oil and gas from vehicles running into the water where the two tiny critters live. So Tennessee workers regraded the bank, installed stone steps for access, and installed boulders, discouraging off-road vehicles from entering the stream.
Workers also have been clearing out invasive plants and planting native plants and flowers.
"What the service has helped do here has made an enormous difference," says Philroy Collins, who lives less than half a mile from the park. If anyone knows the park, what it used to be and what it has become, it's Collins, who bleeds Tennessee orange.
"I've lived here since 1963," he says. "I would come down there and do work with my daddy. After church we'd go down there and have fried chicken and have a good time."
"About 2009, I went down there and said. 'What in the world has happened to this place?' There was high grass and weeds, needles, condoms, trash everywhere. This is one of my favorite places in the world. So I took it upon myself to start cleaning it up. It took me about a year and a half to get it back the way I wanted it to be."
"The state of Tennessee wanted to pay me to look after the grounds, but I said. 'No sir, it's not about money to me, it's a passion. It's a love for the place.'"
Collins is the park's volunteer groundskeeper and steward, and he can be found there several times a day, working or talking to folks who have stopped by. He says tourism has recently increased a lot, due mainly to word of mouth, and he now sees out-of-state license plates all the time.
He and Bill Welch, another Sequatchie County resident, have been working on an information kiosk that will have photos and educational information about the cave, the springs and the animals that live there.
They plan to have the kiosk finished by Sept. 29, when the state of Tennessee plans a "soft opening" of the newly renovated park.
Collins will be there with his granddaughters, ages 4, 6 and 8, who visit the spring regularly with him. "They go in the water and they can find and identify caddisflies and royal snails. I want them to enjoy it like I did with my daddy," he says.
Phil Kloer is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where this story originally appeared. It's shared here with permission.