Invasive Snails Could Be the Key to Saving Coffee Crops
While you may not want to think about snails crawling around your morning cup of coffee, the invertebrates could be key to saving the beans you grind to make it. A recent study entitled “Insights from excrement” suggests that a specific species of disease-fighting snail could offer insights into saving the coffee industry.
The fungal disease known as coffee leaf rust has become increasingly problematic for coffee producers in recent years (thanks, in part, to global warming, of course), but a team of researchers from the University of Michigan have suggested a potentially slimy solution: an invasive species of gastropod called the Asian trampsnail. Ivette Perfecto, an ecologist and co-author of the study, told the New York Times she realized something was up when she saw snail excrement on coffee leaves during a 2016 research trip to Puerto Rico. “It is pretty obvious that they’re eating the spores [that cause coffee leaf rust],” she was quoted as saying. “They eat the spores from the underneath of the leaf and basically clean the leaves of those spores.”
It turns out finding snail poo in Puerto Rico wasn’t a happy coincidence: Perfecto and her team apparently went to the island to specifically figure out why coffee leaf rust wasn’t as prevalent there as in other coffee regions. Along with the snails, these scientists discovered that the local ecosystem had a variety of factors that helped combat the disease—but the work the snails did was the most incredible. Just one snail can reportedly gobble up 30 percent of the rust spores while leaving the leaf itself intact (unclear if it's because these snails abstain from caffeine).
However, as interesting as this finding may be, the researchers admit that simply spreading an invasive species into new ecosystems is probably not a great idea. Instead, Perfecto told the Times that the larger lesson here is that natural problems can often be counteracted by natural solutions. “It’s not to say that none of these technological solutions won’t work, but rather than exclusively focusing on those things, we need to focus on the ecology of the system,” she said.
At this point, more research needs to be done. But if we do end up needing these spore-loving snails, we know they leave, uh, indicators of where to find them.