Meet the Snail Lady: Spotlight on Dr. Lori Tolley-Jordan


Intro to Biology students may forget her name, but they’ll always remember the Snail Lady. 

Invertebrates – spineless animals – make up 99 percent of all animals on Earth. Alabama is a particular paradise for researchers like Dr. Lori Tolley-Jordan, who completed her PhD at the University of Alabama in 2008 before joining the faculty at JSU in 2011. Her research focuses on freshwater ecology with a specialty in freshwater snail biodiversity.

The Texas native has made Alabama home, in part, because it has the highest diversity of freshwater invertebrates in the world. 

“In particular, JSU is located in an epicenter of diversity for freshwater snails and other inverts – like crayfish,” she said. “I can study all kinds of super cool invertebrates and creeks right in my backyard. When a position was posted for an invertebrate biologist in the Department of Biology at JSU, I jumped at the chance and was overjoyed when I was selected to become a member of the faculty.”

In May, Tolley-Jordan received JSU’s distinguished McCluer Scholar Award for her contributions to the academy. She shares her passion for research with students, conducting outside labs to expose them to environments they might have otherwise ignored.

“Sometimes, these students get hooked on studying invertebrates and bring me many specimens that I can add to my collection,” she said. “I am so fortunate because at JSU we still teach classes like entomology – the study of insects – invertebrate biology, and other classes with labs where I always have a captive audience to listen to me gush about invertebrates.”

Tolley-Jordan often incorporates her love of invertebrates into the introductory biology classes, particularly freshwater snails, hence her nickname – the Snail Lady. She has never lost the child-like sense of excitement that came from discovering creepy crawlies. From bugs and slugs to worms and starfish, if it didn’t have a spine, Tolley-Jordan wanted to study it.

“I was always fascinated by how many little critters I could see just by watching a small patch of flowers or looking under a dead log,” she said. “There is an endless diversity of animals to explore. I have studied invertebrates that live in creeks since 1995 and just never stopped flipping rocks to look for these spineless wonders.”  

As a teacher, Tolley-Jordan’s proudest moments come when she leads students into the woods or wading into a creek and sees their pre-conceived notions about being in nature drift away. 

“When I have students give presentations on projects that are based on field work and they say, ‘The best part of the project is when I got to walk in the woods or flip rocks in the creek with the other students in my group.’ I feel really happy and remember why I love to be a teacher,” she said. “Plus, these students often observe things in nature that I never notice, so I learn too.”

Even when she’s away from campus, Tolley-Jordan really isn’t away from her work.

“Weirdly enough, I do a lot of the same things for fun as I do for work,” she said. “I hike on a regular basis, and when time allows, I go to creeks or rivers to kayak and look at invertebrates just for fun.”