Nov. 19, 2013

Meet North America's only 'snail wrangler'

Marla Coppolino
University Photography
Marla Coppolino poses with her snails.

By day, Marla Coppolino seeks companies to license and commercialize Cornell’s life sciences technologies for the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization.

But by night, she is one of only a handful of snail experts in the country and North America’s only “snail wrangler” who professionally manages snails for film and photography. Earlier this month she was featured on the Discovery Channel in Canada. She is also a research associate for two scientific institutions with various research projects underway and a budding entrepreneur who will soon have a line of snail products (T-shirts, iPhone covers, wall hangings).

That’s not all: Coppolino is a Nigerian dwarf goat breeder and trainer (goat Lulu just got certified by Cornell Companions so she can be taken to nursing homes and schools) and maker of goat cheese, soap and lotion; a professional biological illustrator with dozens of published credits and a fine arts painter whose work has been exhibited in several dozen shows; and a board member and soprano for the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, which seeks to preserve the art form of the “Negro spiritual.”

On her four-acre Groton farm, Coppolino also cares for a donkey, three ducks, three guinea fowls, a cat and parakeet and more than 50 land snails.

“I have loved snails ever since I was 7 and discovered land snails in our suburban New Jersey backyard,” says the petite malacologist (mollusk expert).

Marla Coppolino on Discovery

Watch Coppolino’s segment on The Big Q program on the Discovery Channel Canada at http://www.discovery.ca/dp/videos/?clipid=1042428. Coppolino is 4 minutes and 24 seconds into the clip.

After working at the American Museum of Natural History as a collections manager, overseeing 117,000 lots of mollusks with some 1 million specimens, Coppolino earned a master’s in zoology with a focus on the diversity and abundance of snails in ecosystems. She’s been part of various research projects as a research associate at Ithaca’s Paleontological Research Institution and at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.

“We don’t even know if some snail species are endangered or not because there’s not enough data on them,” says Coppolino, “yet so much of nature thrives because many insects, birds and other animals feed on snails to glean calcium and other vital nutrients. … I think that the ecosystem could potentially collapse without them.”

As a snail wrangler, Coppolino was recently interviewed by the Discovery Channel about how snails eat and whether their slime is of any benefit to humans. And she managed snails for a photo shoot for Vogue magazine earlier this month.

“I love land snails because they are patient, humble and curious about the world around them in their own leisurely and ponderous way,” Coppolino says. “I find the spiral form of their shells beautiful and fascinating – the coil is based on a mathematical logarithm. I admire them so much because of their place in the food web – the bottom.

“I think if general audiences see snails on TV, in ads and magazines, they would lose that yuck factor and come to see snails as something beautiful to care about when we talk about conservation,” says Coppolino, who has given dozens of presentations about snails to camps, schools, nature centers, and Audubon and Sierra club groups.

As a patient afflicted with a form of a primary immunodeficiency disease who gives herself weekly immune globulin (antibody) infusions, her other quest is to raise awareness about the importance of blood drives. “People don’t realize that the blood’s components also are used to treat a range of diseases,” including hers, hemophilia and certain conditions in pregnant women. “It means so much to me to see and thank donors.