This month the Maryland BioDiversity Project recognized Kaitlin and Kristin Dan and MacKenzie Cooper for discovering the presence of Japanese Mystery Snails, a non-native, invasive species, in Howard County. The three young women are not professional biologists nor naturalists, yet — but that is because they are 11 and just started sixth grade.
Twin sisters Kaitlin and Kristin were letterboxing with their friend MacKenzie in Columbia's Wilde Lake Park when they made their discovery. They met while attending Trinity School, in Ellicott City, which Kaitlin and Kristin still attend. MacKenzie is at Bonnie Branch Middle School, also located in Ellicott City.
"It's pretty amazing that they spotted them," said the twins' father, Harry Dan, who was supervising the girls' outing. The snails' shells are dark and blend in easily with the rocks in the streambed.
While letterboxing, participants follow clues that lead to small capsules people have hidden in tree stumps, sprinkler heads and piles of rocks. The capsules, or letterboxes, contain stamps that participants use to mark their trail book, which shows all the letterboxes they have found and where they found them.
"I guess they weren't having any luck finding a letterbox, so they started messing around in the stream," said Kaitlin and Kristin's mother, Ellen Dan.
The three girls spotted several large snails resting on rocks in a stream feeding into Wilde Lake. No one in the group had seen them before or knew what kind of snails they were.
When Kristin got home, she searched for the snails on the Internet.
"I think I put in 'ugly snails in streams,' or something," she said. The closest species of snail she could find was the Chinese Mystery Snail, which Kristin read is a non-native, invasive species. The website told readers to contact local authorities if they found the snails.
Kristin told her mother, who emailed Howard County Government, and her email about the snails was routed to Sue Muller, who works for the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks.
"I don't think anyone had contacted me about snails before," Muller said. "I was excited. I'm always excited when children have an interest in the outdoors. In this day and age, everyone's always on their cell phones. I was anxious to meet them."
She met Kristin, Kaitlin and MacKenzie a couple of days later to take a closer look.
"We walked up to the stream, and it didn't take but a few seconds before they found one," Muller said. "And it was like, 'oh, those are big!' But then, of course, I'm not an expert on snails, so the obvious mission became discovering what species this was."
Muller had three different experts, two from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and one from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, examine the snail specimen.
They determined that the snails are Japanese Mystery Snails, which are very similar to Chinese Mystery Snails and also a non-native, invasive species. Previously, Japanese Mystery Snails had been found in only one other location in the state, in Prince George's County.
On Sept. 11, the Maryland BioDiversity Project, a nonprofit that catalogues all living things in the state, recognized the three girls' discovery on its Facebook page.
"It's not only that they were curious enough to go home and do some research to try and determine what the snails were," Muller said. "They then went the extra step to contact the authorities. They followed through the whole way. That's impressive for 11 year old girls. Maybe one of them will grow up to be a biologist."
MacKenzie hopes to be an astrobiologist when she grows up, and Kristin and Kaitlin are thinking of becoming veterinarians or doctors. All three enjoy studying math and science in school.