Within one hundred years of its discovery; however, the tulotoma was in obvious trouble. By the 1930s, the snail had disappeared completely from the Alabama River System, including the type locality at Claiborne, while its numbers in the Coosa System plummeted. Only a (literal) handful of living individuals were known to exist in the 1950s, and malacologists prepared for the worst. Finally, in 1976, as part of a report on the endangered species of Alabama, Tulotoma magniftea was declared to be "now evidently extinct."
While many factors contributed to the tulotoma's demise, the main culprit was the impoundment of the Coosa and Alabama rivers for hydropower and navigation. Six major dams were completed on the Coosa between 1914 and 1966, drowning out the shoals of both the main channel and lower portions of its tributaries. Dredging of the Alabama River and the completion of its locks and dams gave the same result. Deep, silt-collecting lakes replaced the rapids and riffles, and extinction--traveling far faster than a snail's pace--soon followed.
But the tulotoma was not alone. The Mobile basin, composed of the Alabama-Coosa and Tombigbee river systems, once enjoyed the most diverse freshwater gastropod fauna in the world, with over one hundred known species. The Coosa, historically, had at least eighty-two species, but fifty-two are now presumed extinct, for a 63 percent loss; sixteen of the Alabama River's original nineteen species are possibly extinct, for an incredible 84 percent loss. Again, these losses are directly linked to impoundment, siltation, and general degradation of habitat.
Happily, though, the tulotoma was spared its siblings' fate-at least for now. Rediscovered in 1988 in the Coosa System, it is currently known from six tributaries, with its largest numbers in the main Coosa below Jordan Dam--an estimated 109 million strong! Water release from the dam is critical to the maintenance of these numbers, and flow regimes have been modified expressly for the snail's benefit-to prevent "dewatering" of its habitat and provide the best possible conditions for reproduction. In an ironic twist, then, a dam which contributed to the near destruction of a species is being used to ensure its survival.
Thanks to this happy ending, the tulotoma story carries a double message. We lament the extinction--both "evident" and real--of so much of our native fauna, questioning whether all past destruction was truly necessary. But we also wonder what else is hiding out there, tucked in tiny refugia in the backwaters of our state, clinging valiantly to the undersides of rocks.