19 February 2009

Kahuli or the singing snails of Hawaii

When up the mountains of Oahu I heard the grandest but wildest music, as if from hundreds of Aeolian harps, wafted to me on the breezes, and my companion (a native) told me it came from, as he called them, the singing shells. It was sublime. I could not believe it, but a tree close at hand proved it. On it were many of the shells, the animals drawing after them their shells which grafted against the wood and so caused a sound; the multitude of sounds produced the fanciful music.
Rev. H. Glanville Barnacle, 1883. Musical sounds caused by Achatinellae. Journal of Conchology 4:118.
In his 1909 book Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula, Nathaniel B. Emerson offered a more plausible explanation for the source of the music Barnacle had heard (p. 121):
The natives are persuaded that these shells have the power of chirping a song of their own, and the writer has often heard the note which they ascribe to them; but to his ear it was indistinguishable from the piping of the cricket.
From N.B. Emerson, Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula, 1909.

Henry Pilsbry, although he himself probably didn’t think snails could produce music, considered this a significant enough piece of information to be included in the Manual of Conchology (vol. 22, p. xxxvi, 1912-1914):
The native Hawaiians claim that the tree shells have a song, which they have fancifully supplied with words. Dr. Newcomb (P. Z. S. 1853, p. 129) and Dr. N. B. Emerson (Sacred Songs of the Hula, p. 121), and others have given versions of this song. Mr Perkins believes it to be the chirping of crickets.
Writing about the crickets in Natural History of Hawaii a few years later, William A. Bryan also sided with the arthropods (p. 430):
Their chirp can usually be heard a long way, and as they occur in localities frequented by tree snails, their song is often spoken of by the layman as the chirp of these tree-dwelling animals.
Yesterday I asked about this to the malacologist Carl Christensen of Hawaii. His response reiterated the cricket theory:
Pilsbry (and all other modern malacologists) regarded this as a pleasant bit of mythology. It's the crickets. There was a real basis for the association, though--the snails and crickets have similar requirements with regard to moisture. When I was first introduced to Achatinella in the 1960s by Yoshio Kondo, he taught us to listen for the crickets when we went up into the mountains, because once we started hearing crickets we should start looking seriously for Achatinella. It worked particularly well in the trails in the Tantalus area, on the ridge between Manoa and Nuuanu Valleys behind Honolulu. Of course, the snails are gone from there now (though I think the crickets survive).
I hope the crickets are still singing in memory of their once abundant habitat-mates.

1 comment:

Gwen Matthews said...

The Achatinella still are found on the ridge. My daughter is a field biologist with the University of Hawaii that is studying these singing snails.