31 July 2008

A fossil snail fits in between, or, maybe not

Altaba, C.R. (2007). A new genus and species of Enidae (Gastopoda: Pulmonata) from the Quaternary of the Balearic Islands (Western Mediterranean). Zootaxa 1595: 43-52.

The land snail family Enidae is a taxonomic headache. The range of the family extends from Northern Africa to England in the west and all the way to Japan in the east. I have been delving into the systematics of the Turkish taxa—around where the family seems to be especially crowded—on and off for several years. Often the difficulty is with the generic placement of the new or previously known species. As is often the case in most other snail groups, until recently the generic designations were based mostly on shell characteristics, but when malacologists started paying more attention to internal anatomy, a minor chaos was the result. Imagine, what may happen when, sooner or later, DNA barcoding enters the game.

For now, the best, but perhaps not the wisest, way out seems to be to erect a new genus to accommodate those taxa that otherwise don’t fit in. I am not criticizing this approach, because I too have done it (here).

In this paper from September 2007, Cristian Altaba describes yet another new enid genus and species, but this time for a fossil shell, Balearena gymnesica, which is endemic to Upper Pleistocene sediments on Mallorca (Majorca) Island in the western Mediterranean Sea. The new species has a shell quite similar to the shells of the species in the genus Mastus of the Aegean islands and western Anatolia and in Napaeus of the Canary Islands and Azores. However, one significant trait distinguishes B. gymnesica from both Mastus and Napaeus: the protoconch, or the embryonic whorls, of Balearena have spiral lines on bottom halves of whorls, whereas the Mastus and Napaeus protoconches are always devoid of such microsculpture.

Balearena gymnesica, enture shell (1) and protoconch. [Figs. 1-2 from Altaba, 2008]

According to the paper, 2 species in Mauronapaeus, a Northwest African enid genus, have spiral lines decorating their embryonic whorls. Altaba concludes:
[Balearena fills] the gap in shell morphology between Mastus, Napaeus and Mauronapaeus. Remarkably, Balearena occupies a geographically central position between them.
Relying on the complex paleogeography of the Mediterranean area, Altaba proposes that Mastus, Mauronapaeus and Balearena are products of vicariance events. This means that they evolved from an earlier ancestral group that was split apart when the various land masses surrounding the Tethys Sea were being pushed and pulled every which way during the formation of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas in the Miocene period. The snails have retained their general shell shape, because it is presumed to be good for burrowing.

Live Mastus carneolus half buried in soil and mosses. Photographed in Istanbul, Turkey in May 2007.

I will offer a slightly different hypothesis. Mastus and Balearena may instead represent 2 lineages that were split long before the vicariance processes of the Miocene. Their similar shell shapes may be products of convergent evolution that has independently made them good burrowers. As Altaba also notes, the protoconch microsculpture probably doesn’t have anything to do with burrowing, or for that matter, have any function at all. The fine spiral lines of the protoconch are more likely to represent the still developing mantle anatomy of the snail embryo at the time of the secretion of its embryonic shell. This, if true, points to a deeper phylogenetic separation, rooted in developmental differences, between the Mauronapaeus-Balearena group and Mastus.

Someone should start looking at the genes of these snails.

30 July 2008

Pictures from high above 9: a triangle on the ground


I took this picture on the way to Montreal from Washington, DC last Friday.

For all the previous entries in this series I was able to locate the places in Google Earth. But in this case I didn't even try. The only clue I have is that the picture was taken about 20 minutes after we took off from the Washington National Airport.

The picture from high above No. 8 was some place along the Potomac and remains unidentified.

Dr. Horrible may freeze you in a state of boredom

You can now watch the entire Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog for free on Hulu*. I am sorry if you had to pay for it.

Dr. Horrible, who apparently can’t read his e-mails unless they are printed on paper, is trying to join the Evil League of Evil whilst trying to win the heart of the girl at the laundromat. At the end he wins some, loses some.

Act One was the best part; I got the impression that after that whoever was making this movie lost interest in it and hurried things up to get it over with. There was too much singing, not enough funny dialog and the ending was too chaotic, as if they tried to fit in too many things in too short of a time period (why didn't we hear more from Captain Hammer at the psychiatrist's couch?).

It’s not about making money, it’s about taking money, destroying the status quo, because status is not quo.
Dr. Horrible
I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it.

*Appreciations to Deniz for the link to Hulu.

29 July 2008

Hey Canada, I want my scissors back!

Last Friday I flew to Montreal carrying in my carry-on bag a pair of scissors with blades shorter than 4 inches (allowed by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration).

Yesterday morning at the airport in Montreal the same scissors got confiscated.

Me: I flew here with them from the U.S. and now you are telling me I can’t take them back?
Security guy: I know it’s stupid, but the 4-inch blade exemption doesn’t apply in Canada.
I laughed. What more could I have done?
Me: This is good. I will write about it on my blog.
Security guy: You can, Sir.
So then, with the security guy’s “permission”, I am now writing about it.

There will be more stories like this as long as cretins are drafting the regulations that regulate us.

28 July 2008

Migration conservation

Wilcove, D.S., Wikelski, M. (2008). Going, Going, Gone: Is Animal Migration Disappearing. PLoS Biology, 6(7), e188. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060188

There was a time not too long ago when millions of individuals of many species of animals migrated annually across oceans and continents. Then the humans came and things changed. Gone are the migrating herds of the buffalo and the flocks of the passenger pigeon. Some, such as several species of salmon, still hang on to their routines, albeit in much smaller numbers.

Why should animal migrations be conserved? Wilcove & Wikelski argue that the migrating animals provide crucial services to the habitats they pass by and that when their migrations end for good, the ecosystems in the habitats that used to support the migrants begin to suffer from the lack of those services. An example is the several species of salmon in the American northwest that migrate from the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater rivers and lakes where they spawn and die. This process transports a huge amount of biomass, in the form of salmon bodies, from the sea to the land and consequently provides food to a multitude of organisms from bacteria to bears.

A similar nutrient transport occurs with migrating birds who consume enormous quantities of insects along the way. When the birds are gone, suddenly there are too many insects.

True, nutrients are always transported along the food chains within any ecosystem, but only a periodic mass migration provides nutrient transport across large distances across the earth.

Wilcove & Wikelski point out the crucial difference between the traditional conservation that aims to protect species and the conservation of migratory phenomena that would aim to protect the abundance of a migratory species:

...if migration is seen as a phenomenon of abundance, then its protection will require decision makers to adopt a much more proactive approach to conservation—in effect, to protect species while they are still abundant.
This essay puts the blame for the loss of migratory phenomena on 4 general threats: habitat destruction by humans; obstacles created by humans, such as dams; overexploitation by humans; climate change caused by human activities.

But something is missing here, the root cause of all these secondary effects: seemingly unstoppable population growth of Homo sapiens. Why are we still afraid to bring that up—apperently even in a scientific setting—as the ultimate cause of the biodiversity crisis we are facing? Nothing will matter in the long run until the humans realize that they need to put a lid on their own numbers.

27 July 2008

Pupilla muscorum in Montreal

During a long walk in Montreal this afternoon, Deniz and I came upon some railroad tracks that didn`t seem to be in use anymore. A few meters from the tracks there was a low wall of large blocks possibly of limestone. They are visible in the picture behind me.

Malacologist checking out the tracks (photo by Deniz).

On one of those blocks, shaded by grasses and other plants, were a bunch of tiny land snails. They had become dormant attached to the rock. Without the help of an instrument of magnification other than my camera, or a key for snails, I am identifying them tentatively as Pupilla muscorum.

Here is one in the palm of my hand.


Moth on the kitchen window


Late Thursday afternoon last week this moth was on the kitchen window. I took a shot of it from inside and then went outside for some close-ups.


It was a relatively large moth with a wing span of approximately 50 mm. If you have any idea what it may be, post its name in the comments.

25 July 2008

Going to Montreal again

Hey, Transportation Security Administration, I will be flying again over the weekend! In October of last year you "randomly" picked me for a body search, back in March you searched my checked luggage, in June you took my yogurt away. I can't wait to see what you have planned for me this time.

Let me answer a few questions beforehand to make your job easier.

The purpose of my visit?
Pleasure! Simla the Niece & Nil are getting married tomorrow! Woo hoo!

How long will I be staying?

Until Monday morning.

Anything to declare?
Oh yes...four prohibited items...no, no, no. No. One...one prohibited item...No, no. Not even one prohibited item. No, no prohibited items at all. No dangerous prohibited items, no*.

Last time I went to Montreal I was Sir Aydin. This weekend I will be Professor Orstan and it will probably the only time in my life I will have that title before my name.

I will try to post from Montreal whenever I get a chance, otherwise, I have scheduled posts.

Bye now.

*With appreciations to Monty Python.

24 July 2008

Which came first, the snail or the egg?

The tiny land snails of the genus Vertigo have appeared on this blog before (here and here). The shells of most Vertigo grow to be about 2.5 mm in length. They reproduce by laying eggs that are, out of obvious necessity, even smaller. But, as discussed here, there is a limit to how small an egg can get relative to its mother.

According to Myzyk (2005), who measured about Vertigo 3200 eggs, the mean egg diameters of 7 species of Vertigo varied from about 0.54 mm to about 0.74 mm. The largest eggs belonged to Vertigo moulinsiana.

Vertigo moulinsiana and its egg. Figs. 2-3 from Myzyk (2005).

As you can also see in the picture of V. moulinsiana on this page, the aperture of that species and those of most other Vertigos are rather cluttered by the various folds and lamellae inside, usually referred to as the teeth.

How do then the relatively large eggs pass thru those barriers? Myzyk reported that the eggs of the Vertigo species he examined were not spherical but slightly flattened and, furthermore, they had gelatinous covers rather than hard shells. They were somewhat flexible, in other words. Myzyk summarizes it thus: "All the studied species have toothed apertures; the flattening of the eggs and the absence of calcified envelopes make it possible for the eggs to get out of the shell."

This leads to the question posed in the title: did the genus Vertigo evolve partially blocked apertures first or eggs with gelatinous covers first? They probably couldn’t have had the fully developed teeth in their apertures while trying to lay hard-shelled eggs. So, I suspect evolution followed either of the 2 possible pathways: 1. Their eggs lost their hard shells first (or, perhaps they never had hard-shelled eggs) and then the apertural teeth came; 2. The apertures and the softening of the egg covers evolved concurrently.

Myzyk, S. 2005. Egg structure of some vertiginid species (Gastropoda: Pulmonata: Vertiginidae). Folia Malacologica 13:169. pdf (open access but registration required)

23 July 2008

Still fluorescing after all these years


Fluorescein is one of the most commonly used fluorescent dyes. The absorption maximum of its basic solutions is at about 494 nm, resulting in a yellowish-orange color. But, when viewed at a right angle to the incident light, an intense, green fluorescence is observed with a maximum at 521 nm. The fluorescence results when some of the absorbed radiation is emitted as less energetic photons, hence the higher wavelength of emission compared to that of excitation (the rest of the absorbed energy is given off as heat).

In the picture above, you can see both the green fluorescence and the yellow-orange transmitted light.

During my postdoc years I did quite a bit of fluorescence spectroscopy. Fluorescein and its derivatives were among the often used dyes in our arsenal. So when I was leaving the lab for good in the fall of 1991 for my current desk job, I took a small bottle of fluorescein solution as a memento. It is still green.

22 July 2008

Assisted colonization? Let’s hope that will not be our last hope

ResearchBlogging.orgHoegh-Guldberg, O., Hughes, L., McIntyre, S., Lindenmayer, D.B., Parmesan, C., Possingham, H.P., Thomas, C.D. (2008). ECOLOGY: Assisted Colonization and Rapid Climate Change. Science, 321(5887), 345-346. DOI: 10.1126/science.1157897

In last Friday's Science, Hoegh-Guldberg et al., discuss various conservation measures to save those species that may otherwise go extinct as a result of global warming if they can’t migrate on their own or evolve quickly enough to adapt to altered climate patterns.

Of course, the best solution would be to save a species in its own habitat. But sadly, that's not always possible. The paper proposes 2 last ditch resorts if everything else fails or is impractical. The first of these is the storage of frozen gametes with the hope that the species may be re-created, so to speak, in the future if and when the environmental conditions improve. There is no guarantee, however, that the future world will be a more hospitable place for any species that may be on the verge of extinction today. Even assuming that it will be, one would still need to save enough genetic variety to assure the establishment of viable populations.

The second proposal is the main theme of their discussion: assisted colonization or migration of threatened species.

My main interest is with the conservation of threatened terrestrial invertebrates in general and gastropods in specific. In Tentacle No. 16 (p. 17), I discussed the possible vernalization (cold-induced triggering of reproduction) requirements of terrestrial snails and raised the possibility that if global warming trends continue certain snail species may face extinction unless something was done to save them. Starting with the idea of assisted colonization, I can now envisage 3 potential scenarios.

This is an original figure, not from Hoegh-Guldberg et al. Although my ideas are not specific to any particular part of the world, for the sake of argument, I am using a map of North America.

1. Species A has a continuous range extending from southern U.S. to northern U.S. The southern populations (As) are likely to be genetically differentiated and better adapted to warmer climates than are the northern populations (An). Hoegh-Guldberg et al., propose that: "Moving individuals from 'warm-adapted' populations to historically colder locations may increase the probability of subsequent adaptation as the climate changes."

2. Species B exists in 2 disjunct populations, one in the south (Bs) and the other in the north (Bn). The populations in between may have disappeared millions of years ago as a result of changes in habitat or climate arising from natural events or just recently as a result habitat destruction by humans. This situation may be seen as a special case of scenario #1. Hoegh-Guldberg et al., propose that: “Dispersal processes that have been disrupted by loss of habitat connectivity could be restored by colonization.”

3. Species C has always been endemic to the south. Hoegh-Guldberg et al., propose that: “...translocation of species to locations outside their historic range where conditions will be suitable in the medium- to long-term may be the only strategy to prevent [their] extinction.”

This is the most troublesome suggestion. Not only would it be difficult to find suitable habitats for a species hundreds of kilometers away from its native range, but the introduction of a species to a community where it has never existed before could spell trouble for the already-existing native members.

Yes, of course, it has been done many times before inadvertently and in some cases, without apparent detrimental results. For example, several introduced European slugs coexist, seemingly peacefully, with the native snails and slugs in eastern North American forests. Ironically, however, it has usually been the intentional introductions of alien species that ended in disaster. A case in point is the near-destruction of the Partula snails of the Society Islands by the intentionally introduced carnivorous snail Euglandina rosea (more info).

If E. rosea, an endemic of southern U.S., one day faced extinction due to rapid climatic change, it would deserve to be saved as much as any other species. But would we really want to translocate E. rosea to northeast forests where the native species would be unprepared to face such a voracious predator and where E. rosea's only competitor would be the much smaller Haplotrema concavum?

21 July 2008

Pomatiopsis lapidaria: a snail that is neither aquatic nor terrrestrial


Back in the 1930s, the little* Pomatiopsis lapidaria was the subject of a series of heated exchanges between 2 of the leading malacologists of the period, Frank C. Baker and Bohumil Shimek. Baker wrote that P. lapidaria was an amphibious snail, while Shimek argued that it was terrestrial (see the back to back salvos of Baker & Shimek at each other in Ecology, vol. 11, pages 788-791, 1930).

The controversy was never resolved. Pilsbry did not include P. lapidaria in his Land Mollusca of North America (1940-1948), but Hubricht did in his The distributions of the native land mollusks of eastern United States (1985).

During our field trip to LaRue Pine Hills in Illinois last month, we found P. lapidaria on a steep hillside away from any running or standing water and in the company of unambiguous land snails. But, apparently, it can also survive for considerable periods in water, which is not surprising, because it still maintains a vestigial gill (ctenidium) in its mantle cavity.


Pomatiopsis lapidaria is an operculated snail in the family Pomatiopsidae, superfamily Rissooidea. There are 2 other families in the Rissooidea the representatives of which have been on this blog more than once: Assiminea succinea and the genus Truncatella. Whether they are aquatic or terrestrial can also be argued endlessly. Obviously, the root of the "problem" is with the Rissooidea: they have so far evolved just enough to get out of the water, but not to survive far from it.

More or less everything we currently know about P. lapidaria is in Dundee, D.S. Aspects of the biology of Pomatiopsis lapidaria...Misc. Pub. Mus. Zool. U. Michigan #100, 1957 (pdf).

*Adults grow to be about 6-7 mm in shell length.

20 July 2008

Not exactly the latest news

My longtime friend Selim e-mailed this yellowed newspaper clipping a few hours ago. He said it was from the winter of 1966 and the subject, Şükrü Türel, was a now-deceased relative of his.

The "unusual" event that was worthy of a spot in an Istanbul newspaper was this Şükrü guy's dip in the Bosphorus apparently on a cold day.

I thought the reported conversation was amusing:
In response to the question, "Is the sea cold?", Ş. Türel said "Not to me. Probably it is 15-16 degrees [Celcius]. If it were colder, my neck would feel cold." Türel, who says the weather is warm, is seen in the picture.
Did anything more significant happen on that day in Istanbul?

Fun (and education) with a book of abstracts

As mentioned in this post, early this year I paid my dues and became a member of the Florida Academy of Sciences. The Academy had its annual meeting, jointly with the Georgia Academy of Science, back in March, but the book of abstracts arrived in the mail only about a week ago (abstracts are also available here).

How they managed to fit so many talks and posters (117 pages) from so many different fields of science into one morning and one afternoon session is hard to conceive, but they managed it nevertheless.

Here are some snippets from the abstracts that attracted my attention.

Tin trade failure in ancient Mesopotamia: The reason why the Late bronze Age civilizations of Eastern Mediterranean fell by S. Samei, University of Georgia.
...the Hittites had a high demand of tin, an alloy of bronze. Where this tin came from is an old controversy. However, archaeological and geological researches point to rich tin sources in the west, in the present day Iran and Afghanistan.

Hold it, hold it! The Hittites lived in the present day Turkey and Iran and Afghanistan are located to the east.

Decomposition rates in small mammals by M. Acosta and G.E. Ellis, Barry University.
The control group consisted of six mice with no penetrating wounds and the experimental group consisted of six mice which sustained abdominal puncture wounds...There was a significanct increase in the rate of decomposition among the animals in the experimental group.

Swallets in Florida by G.H. Means & T.M. Scott, Florida Geological Survey.
A swallet is defined as a place where water disappears underground in a limestone region.

There, I learned something new.

Preliminary results on diet composition of swordfish Xiphias gladius, within the U.S. Florida Straits by A.M. Heemsoth & D.W. Kerstetter, Nova Southern University.
To date, 54 stomachs have been collected from different locations in the Florida Straits...

Florida is not just for shell collecting any more.

Is leprosy spreading among Nine-banded armadillos in the southeastern United States? by W.J. Loughry, Valdosta State University.
Although rare, a number of positive individuals were identified in eastern sites previously considered uninfected. This indicates leprosy may be spreading eastward...

A comparison of teaching college students algebra courses in the morning vs. the evening by A. Lazari, Valdosta State University.
The data indicates [sic] that students have higher success in the morning lecture classes.

18 July 2008

Graffiti tells it like it is: Darwin fish catches an easy prey!

Whilst checking out the hidden corners of Germantown with camera in hand, I came upon this elaborate graffiti.


Then I noticed the red splotch below it on the sloping ground.


It was an evolving tetrapod Darwin fish in the process of devouring a Jesus fish for once and all.

Obviously we've got some intelligent designers of graffiti around here. Go for it, boys!

17 July 2008

Euchemotrema hubrichti

The land snail featured on the T-shirts of the American Malacological Society meeting in Carbondale, Illinois last month was Euchemotrema hubrichti. As its specific name implies, the snail was named by Henry Pilsbry in 1940 after the late Leslie Hubricht who was honored at the meeting by a symposium and the field trip after the meeting was to LaRue Pine Hills, the type location of E. hubrichti.

So, everything fell into place and, as you can imagine, it was exciting to see live specimens of E. hubrichti during the field trip.


More or less everything we currently know about this snail is in Anderson & Smith [A redescription of the carinate pillsnail, Euchemotrema hubrichti (Pilsbry, 1940) (Pulmonata:Polygyridae), with notes on habitat and genetics. Zootaxa 807:1-11, 2005], which you may download from here.


16 July 2008

A stinky news story about Arap Baba’s mummy

I have noted the rather pathetic reporting of science-related news in Turkish news media. So when the headline "Arap Baba’s unmummified corpse hasn’t decomposed in 700 years" caught my attention in today’s edition of the newspaper Radikal, my 1st reaction was "Here we go again."

Arap Baba (Arab Father), it turns out, is a local legend in the eastern Turkish city of Elazığ. His decapitated corpse, said to be 700 years old, was displayed in a türbe, a small mausoleum usually reserved for saintly figures.

According to the governor of Elazığ, cited by Radikal, there were recent complaints of odor coming from the coffin. Therefore, some university scientists were contacted who came and removed Arap Baba for an investigation. That event was what initiated the news agencies’ interest in the body that wouldn’t rot.

I suspected that the "corpse that hasn’t decomposed in 700 years" was the desiccated, or naturally mummified, remains of someone who may have died a long time ago. If organic remains are thoroughly dry and remain dry, they can't rot, because microorganisms that do the decomposition will not grow and any enzymatic reactions that may otherwise contribute to the breakdown of tissues will also be inhibited. There is nothing extraordinary about the process. But if the humidity in Arap Baba's coffin room went up recently, the remains could have started to get moldy and smelly.

A Google search found a more reasonable account of the story by the CNN Türk, although this one has an even more catchy headline: "The secret of the corpse that hasn’t decomposed in 700 years." Nevertheless, the quotation attributed to the forensic anthropologist Yaşar İşcan of the Istanbul University, who is a member of the team examining the "saintly" remains, confirms my suspicion (translation and italics mine):

The reason why we came here is to collect data, to make observations. To understand the mummy’s physical structure and what sort of evidence is present. What remains are representing the mummy? We want to examine if it is in the form of a skeleton or if it still retains soft tissue, skin or muscles.
So, it indeed is a mummy. Stories about mummies are always interesting, though, and I hope there will be follow-up reports.

15 July 2008

Leafy impressions in concrete


During the AMS meeting in Carbondale, Illinois last month, I went on a walk one afternoon and passed by a concrete sidewalk covered with fossil-like impressions of tree leaves.


Some of the marks had bits and pieces of leaves still stuck on them.


Apparently, the concrete had been poured not long ago, perhaps last fall and perhaps on a windy day when leaves were dropping from nearby trees.


They were quite detailed; I could make out the veins and the curvature of the leaves.

The 1st leaf was probably an oak, while the last one looks like a sycamore, I am not sure about the 2nd one.

Remembering the left side of the bell curve

In İstanbul—Hatıralar ve Şehir*, the Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk starts off the chapter about his first impressions of being a student with the following truism, if I dare call it that (my translation):

The first thing I learned in school was that some people were stupid; the second thing I learned was that some people were even stupider.

*Istanbul: Memories and the City. I haven’t seen the English version of the book where the translation of that particular sentence may be different.

14 July 2008

Gülümseyin* if you can relate to this post

One of the quirky joys of being bilingual is that sentences that mix words or sentence fragments from the 2 languages you are fluent in may look and sound entirely normal until you stop and pay closer attention to them. So a week ago when I got an e-mail with the subject line that read "annem diyor ki, we have to start planning our Turkey trip", I read it without thinking twice and it didn't dawn on me a while that the 1st half of that sentence was Turkish.

Deniz sent that e-mail to me and Simla (the other bilingual niece). In this case, the Turkish ki has the same function as the English that: "Mom is saying that we have to start planning our Turkey trip".

Another funny bilingual sentence from the same e-mail: "Ayin 9'una ucak bileti alirsak then we arrive in Turkey on the 10th" (If we buy plane tickets for the 9th of the month, then...).

The Turkish fragment of the latter sentence is further corrupted by being spelled in "computer Turkish" that replaces certain Turkish letters with the closest-looking (not closest-sounding) Latin characters. The correct spelling of "Ayin 9'una ucak bileti alirsak" is "Ayın 9'una uçak bileti alırsak" (note the undotted "i"s).

Having exchanged about 30 e-mails, we are very close purchasing our uçak biletleri.


13 July 2008

Pherbellia albovaria, a snail killing fly

In this post, I wrote about a dead fly I had found in a container of land snail shells collected last May and which turned out to be Pherbellia albovaria (Diptera: Sciomyzidae). The larvae of sciomyzids are snail predators. Bratt et al. (1969) gave several descriptions of the feeding habits of the larvae of P. albovaria. Here is one:

A larva that hatched on August 10 killed and ate 5 snails (1 [Discus] patulus, 1 [Mesodon] thyroidus, and 3 [Zonitoides] arboreus) during the 44 days it required to complete development to the pupal stage. Each of these snails was killed slowly, and the larva continued to feed in the rotting tissues for several days after the host died. The fifth snail was invaded on September 13 but did not die until September 16, and the larva continued feeding in it until puparium formation on September 22.
The last instar larva pupates inside the shell of its last victim and after its development is completed, emerges as an adult fly to continue the cycle.

In the original post, I had a picture of a M. thyroidus shell that I thought contained the puparium of the dead fly. But I was mistaken; what I saw inside that shell was only some soil. Subsequently, I found the fly's puparium inside an Anguispira fergusoni shell.


The arrows mark the ends of the puparium. After I took this picture, I opened a hole in the shell and visually confirmed that the object inside was indeed a puparium.

Last Thursday afternoon I was at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and gave the fly and the shell with the puparium to the entomology collection. I am now preparing a short note for publication.

Here is another picture of the snail killer identified as Pherbellia albovaria by Lloyd V. Knutson. From the front of its head to the tips of its wings it was ~7.5 mm; in comparison, the diameter of the A. fergusoni shell was 9 mm.

Bratt, Knutson, Foote & Berg. (1969). Biology of Pherbellia (Diptera: Sciomyzidae). Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, Memoir 404. [I am grateful to Wayne Mathis of the NMNH for giving me a copy of this book.]

11 July 2008

My failed attempt at cultured terror

I got caught red-handed whilst attempting to sneak into an airplane a 150-gram cup of nonfat vanilla yogurt with active cultures of bacteria at the Washington National Airport 2 weeks ago. Imagine the horrendous act of fermentation I was about to unleash among an airplane full of innocent lactose-intolerant passengers had it not been for an alert Transportation Security Administration official who would not let anything so dangerous as a cup full of Lactobacillus acidophilus pass the security check. Despite my hungry pleas that it was to be my lunch, my cup of cultured milk product was safely defused by the TSA official in the nearest garbage can. I wasn’t even allowed to consume it then and there.

Pull the lid and throw consume.

Aren't you feeling safer already?

10 July 2008

It’s a small snail

The tiny coastal terrestrial Assiminea succinea has become one of my favorite snails. I have been maintaining a small “colony” of them at home since the end of March. Although the snails are far from their original home in Florida, they have so far done well.

My work with A. succinea was interrupted last week when I was in Carbondale for the American Malacological Society meeting. One of the symposia at the AMS meeting was in memory of the late Leslie Hubricht (1908-2005) who collected and studied the land snails of the eastern U.S. for about 50 years.

When I first started studying A. succinea, I was under the impression that it was a southern species. But then I looked it up in Malacolog and was surprised to see that there were records of it not only from Maryland and Virginia, but also from further up north along the eastern coast. The citation for the Maryland and Virginia records was a 1972 special scientific report (#65) from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Back in the spring, I searched for the report in the on-line catalogs of the libraries of the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian, but couldn’t find it. Until this morning I hadn’t thought of looking for it in the most obvious place, the library of the VIMS itself. Sure enough, a pdf copy was available.

As I had hoped, the report listed the locations where A. succinea had been recorded in Maryland and Virginia (p. 126 under Syncera succinea) and also mentioned the name of a familiar collector.

NMNH* has specimens from Crisfield and Huggins’ Pt. (Potomac R.), Md., from RR* (Mollusk, Lancaster Co.), Shell Bay, W. of Chincoteague, Accomack Co., Willis Wharf, Bayford, Cherrystone, Oyster, Smith Is. and Fisherman’s Is., Northampton Co., Western Branch of the Elizabeth R., 11-III-45; and Willoughby Spit, 15-VIII-43. The last two collections were by Leslie Hubricht...
It’s a small world.

*NMNH: National Museum of Natural History; I don’t know what “RR” stands for.

09 July 2008

Field trip to LaRue Pine Hills

Last Thursday about 25 attendees of the American Malacological Society annual meeting had a field trip to an area called LaRue Pine Hills within Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. The majority of the group, including myself, were interested in collecting land snails and the attraction of the location to us was a long limestone cliff that was known, from previous surveys, to harbor a rich diversity of land snail species.


The road going due north along the cliff had been flooded for some time.


Luckily the southbound road was clear and provided easy access to the cliff. We spent several hours searching for and collecting snails. The picture below shows 2 of the most common species, Xolotrema fosteri (left) and Anguispira alternata. The 2 separate pictures below are not to scale; X. fosteri grows about as wide as a penny, while A. alternata can grow as wide as a nickel.


There were many other species, including Pomatiopsis lapidaria, which is often treated as an aquatic snail and Euchemotrema hubrichti, a land snail endemic to this location. I will write about them in separate posts.

The Zen of snail collecting: Tim Pearce becomes one with leaf litter (also a good way to get ticks and chiggers).

08 July 2008

Which lives longer, the chameleon or the egg?

Karsten, K.B., Andriamandimbiarisoa, L.N., Fox, S.F., Raxworthy, C.J. (2008). A unique life history among tetrapods: An annual chameleon living mostly as an egg. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(26), 8980-8984. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0802468105.

If we are talking about the Madagascarian chameleon Furcifer labordi, then the answer is the egg. According to Karsten et al., the eggs of F. labordi incubate for 8-9 months before synchronously hatching at the onset of the rainy season. The hatchlings grow rapidly, reach sexual maturity in less than 2 months, reproduce in January–February and then start dying off only 4-5 months after hatching. Their annual lifestyle is apparently unique or almost so among the ~28,300 species of four-limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) that normally have perennial life spans.

There is a distinct contrast between the population demographies of F. labordi and the perennial chameleon F. verrucosus.

Table 1 from Karsten et al.

From spring thru November, there are only eggs of F. labordi around; otherwise, there are no juveniles, no adults. Whereas, in the case of F. verrucosus, there is never a period during a year when one can’t find a mixture of different age groups of chameleons.

Interestingly, the 2 chameleon species are sympatric, that is, they can be found together in the same habitat. What factors may have been responsible for the evolution of such different lifestyles?

The demographic and body size comparisons of the 2 species suggest one possible answer. During the period from late December thru early March, F. labordi is present only as adults (and eggs), while F. verrucosus is present mostly as juveniles and some adults. This situation may give the adult F. labordi, whose maximum snout-vent length is about 110 mm (Fig. 2 in the paper), a better chance to compete against the smaller number of adult F. verrucosus, whose maximum SVL may reach 200 mm.

Karsten et al., do not discuss this possibility, at least not directly. Is something wrong with my reasoning?

07 July 2008

Thinking about the American Malacological Society meeting

The 74th Annual Meeting of the American Malacological Society was at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois last week. For various speculative reasons, the meeting was less well attended, with only 100 or so malacologists, than some of the recent meetings that had attracted as many as 150 attendees.

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

Less people meant fewer presentations; in fact, on Wednesday, the last day of the meeting, there was only one set of talks. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because when there are too many simultaneous talks, one is often forced to choose between 2 or more talks that one may be interested in. On the other hand, the land snail ID session, the poster session and the traditional AMS auction all took place on Tuesday night. I didn’t think there was enough time to look at specimens, to read the posters and chat with the presenters and to go thru the books and reprints that were on sale. Moreover, all of those activities were interrupted with frequent trips to the beer stand for refills (and to the men’s room for obvious reasons). I have been told that the cramming of those activities into short time slots in rented rooms were out of financial necessity.

There were many good and interesting talks and posters. In retrospect, however, I am not sure what the terrestrial gastropod workshop and the ID session had intended to accomplish and what was actually achieved. It seemed to me that the majority of those in attendance were already more or less experienced malacologists. The abstracts of all presentations are available here.

On Thursday we also had a fun field trip. I will write about that in another post.

Besides providing venues for presenting one’s latest research and learning about what others have been up to, these meetings are also great opportunities for renewing one’s friendships, for making new friends and for casual exchanges of scientific ideas. I would recommend the AMS meetings to everyone interested in studying mollusks. While in Carbondale, we were already making plans not just for next year’s meeting in Ithaca, New York, but even for the one in 2010 that may take place in Thailand jointly with the World Congress of Malacology.

Photos from the meeting are at bella chiocciola.

Getting ready for the group photo.

06 July 2008

Chemical beer review: Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar

Last Thursday evening, with the AMS meeting and the field trip behind us, the number of attendees still hanging around in Carbondale had dwindled down to a mere 10. We all got together and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant. When the dinner was over it wasn't even 9 o'clock yet, but the majority, pretending to be tired or resorting to the lame excuse "I have to get up early in the morning", returned to their dorm rooms, while we, the 3 indefatigable ones, headed for the "best" bar in town, Mélange, recommended to us by a local friend*.

Mélange indeed turned out to be nicely suited for long after-dinner chats about snails while sipping "exotic" drinks. I tried a big bottle of Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar.


This was a dark brown ale. It had no bitterness but had a nice nutty aroma. It may have been slightly cloudy, but I couldn't be sure in the dimly lit interior of the bar. Overall, it was an enjoyable beer that would taste best when drunk ice cold.


The label declared that Hazelnut Brown Nectar had "No chemicals"—a stupid claim repeated on Rogue's web page. Come on people, you make good beer, but don't make foolish claims; without chemicals there wouldn't be beer. Water is a chemical, alcohol is a chemical; hazelnut oil—which presumably makes up a sizable fraction of "hazelnut nectar"—contains fatty acids, triacylglycerides, waxes, sterols, methyl-sterols, terpenic and aliphatic alcohols, tocopherols, tocotrienols and hydrocarbons (composition here). Those are all chemicals and imagine how many more come from malt, hops and the brewer's yeast.

Isn't it about time we moved beyond this "no chemicals" nonsense?

And all the while, a certain other member of our small group, wisely ignoring my ranting about the label of Hazelnut Brown Nectar, was enjoying her chocolate martini.


*Thanks again for the recommendation, Marla. We had a good time.

05 July 2008

An 8-legged souvenir from Illinois: lone star tick

Yesterday, Megan Paustian, Jeff Nekola and I drove from the American Malacological Society meeting in Carbondale, Illinois to the airport in St. Louis, Missouri. Along the way, we stopped at the Pyramid State Park in Illinois for a quick look at the local snails. This was followed by an ice cream lunch at a Dairy Queen. After we returned to our car at the DQ parking lot, Megan found a tick in the car; one of us had undoubtedly picked it up at the park. I noticed the white spot on its back and identified it tentatively as a lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) before throwing out the window. We didn't think of checking our bodies for more.

About 12 hours later back at home in Maryland, I was undressing to take a shower when I noticed a dark spot on my leg where none had been before. Sure enough, it was a tick gorging itself on my pure blood.


After the photo session, I removed the tick into a vial of alcohol. A quick search on the Internet identified it as a male lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), which doesn't have the female's white spot (more info).

The lone star tick carries the microorganism that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever and its bite may also cause something called southern tick-associated rash illness. I am hoping for the best.

My previous tick story (and Neil Young concert review) was here. I am sure there will be others in the future.

03 July 2008

No nuts here either

From the label of a can of mango pulp from India.

02 July 2008

Shameless self-promotion

In this post back in December 2007, I wrote that I was reviewing a manuscript for the open-access malacology journal Malacologica Bohemoslovaca published by the Institute of Zoology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

One thing led to another and last May the editor Libor Dvořák invited me to join the journal's editorial board. I thought about it for about a week and then accepted the offer. My responsibility would be to do a preliminary review of the manuscripts dealing with the malacological fauna of Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, etc., and then to find suitable reviewers for them. This would be followed by the collection and the forwarding of the reviews to the editor. What made me hesitate was the potential extra work (and headaches) this could create. But I decided to give it a try. I can always resign.

So, for whatever it's worth, yours truly is now on the editorial board of the Malacologica Bohemoslovaca.

01 July 2008

It was 150 years ago today: natural selection unleashed

On 1 July 1858, Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s independently developed ideas on evolution by natural selection were made public for the first time before the Linnean Society in London.

Darwin had been developing his ideas for 20 years, but before that day he had revealed them only to a few close friends and correspondents, including the American botanist Asa Gray. Wallace, on the other hand, had come up with his version of natural selection, very much similar to that of Darwin's, a few months earlier while doing fieldwork in the Malay Archipelago and communicated it to Darwin in a now famous letter.

The presentation at the Linnean Society was initiated with a letter of introduction by Darwin’s close friends Charles Lyell and Joseph D. Hooker, opening with the words:

My Dear Sir, -- The accompanying papers, which we have the honour of communicating to the Linnean Society, and which all relate to the same subject, viz. the Laws which affect the Production of Varieties, Races, and Species, contain the results of the investigations of two indefatigable naturalists, Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace.
This was followed by the reading of extracts from an unpublished essay Darwin had written in 1844, part of his 1857 letter explaining his ideas to Gray and the manuscript Wallace had sent to Darwin.

What better thing is there to do on July 1st than to learn about evolution? Read a book on evolution, teach someone about evolution, visit a natural history museum or take a hike in the woods or go to a sea shore to witness the products of evolution. And don’t forget to remember Darwin and Wallace, for, after all these years, their idea remains indefatigable.