13 August 2009

Where are all the malacologists?

About 10 days ago, Christopher Taylor over at Catalogue of Organisms had a post about the terrestrial gastropod superfamily Gastrodontoidea. While introducing his taxon, Christopher took the opportunity to complain about the lack of basic malacological information, besides photographs, on the internet. Specifically, he was referring to the sort of information one could use to understand a little bit of the basic biology and the taxonomy of a given taxon.

For most mollusk groups that sort of information is indeed lacking. The mollusk taxon that is best represented on the Internet is probably the Opisthobranchia, the sea slugs. Considering that the Mollusca is the 2nd most speciose phylum, after the Arthropoda, one would think that there would be proportionately more information about them on the Information Highway.

In a comment I left after the said post, I suggested that one problem for the mollusks’ lack of adequate representation may be that there aren't that many malacologists around. Another commenter, Susan J. Hewitt, a regular reader of this blog, agreed with me and added that “most of the professionals...are way too busy with career-building (think resume and publications list) to spend time putting info onto the 'net”. That is probably true, not that there is anything wrong with career-building.

Earlier today, while looking up some papers in The Nautilus from 1971, I chanced upon a short article by the late malacologist Dee Dundee titled United States research trends in malacology (85:67-69; pdf of vol 85). Dundee had searched 10 major journals published in the U.S. during the period 1900-1969 and grouped the papers on mollusks into broad categories. According to her findings, until the late 1960s the majority of the publications dealt with taxonomy and distribution, while papers on physiology, behavior and reproduction of mollusks hardly ever reached the 5% level. I don’t think things have changed much since then.

But what really attracted my attention was her following comment:

From this search it was found that research was being done over the last ten years by less than 100 workers, a remarkable few in view of the fact that mollusks represent the second largest group of living animals.
This was almost 40 years ago. The total number of practicing malacologists in the U.S. doesn’t seem to have increased much since then. The annual meetings of the American Malacological Society routinely have only about 100 attendants with perhaps a quarter or more of those being graduate students. Of course, not every malacologist is expected to go to the AMS meetings. In fact, the AMS directory lists ~260 members, but not all of them are in the U.S. The total number of practicing malacologists in the U.S., however one may define that, may only be about 150. Thus, when the increase in the U.S. population since 1970 is taken into account, the proportion of the practicing malacologists seems to have remained about the same.

The real question boils down to Why are there so few malacologists? Is it because jobs in malacology are hard to come by? What about the practicing amateurs? I don’t know the answers.

12 comments:

Megan said...

Hmm, very good point. At the National Museum of Natural History, molluscs (and corals, annelids, etc.) belong to the Invertebrate Zoology Dept., while Vertebrate Zoology seems to be larger than IZ but represents far fewer species. At least the Entomology Dept. stands alone in representing the largest phylum as its own department.

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

The entomologists get away with it not only because they have more species, but also because certain insects are major crop pests while others spread disease. Only if we had some killer snails out there...

Jason R said...

Speaking of pests, looks like their is an newish import regulation concerning all gastropods, including marine species.

Jason R said...

That link should go here: http://glassbox-design.com/2009/ppq526-snail/

Christopher Taylor said...

To be honest, I'm surprised by the low numbers - if anything, I would have expected the opposite, considering malacology's populist appeal.

But now I think about, even the thriving malacology departments I've known tend to be inhabited by the decidedly elderly. I wonder - could the general decline in interest in collecting dead animals have played much of a part?

Anonymous said...

Hi Aydin, thanks for the mention.

As far as numbers go, the whole phylum Mollusca, although large (maybe 93,000 species recognized), isn't anywhere near to being in the same town, let alone in the same ballpark, as the class Insecta with 6 to 10 million. Beetles alone are 360,000 species!

Mollusca does have considerable economic importance, both positive and negative, as food, as crop pests, and as vectors of diseases such as Schistosomiasis and liver fluke. Teredo species cause millions of dollars worth of damage to naval installations world wide each year. A couple of of the larger cone snail species have managed to sting and kill a few people here and there. But still, the various effects of mollusks on humans can't compare with the impact of insects on our species.

I think that is because insects are almost entirely terrestrial, and many are air-borne, they share our spaces with us, like it or not. Mollusks are still primarily marine, with only a relatively small number of land and freshwater families. Insects have adapted to cities and moved in with us, something that mollusks by and large have failed to do.

And yes, there is definitely less public general interest now in shell-collecting than there was during the last great wave, from about 1950 to about 1980. Interest in natural history waxes and wanes, and has done so for a couple hundred years at least. Right now, yes, I suspect part of that is because the idea of collecting live animals and killing them has gone out of fashion as a casual hobby... and that is mostly a "good thing". It is worth pointing out however that empty shells of mollusks are one thing it is possible to collect without harming animals, and sometimes valuable new scientific information can be gathered this way.

It seems we have witnessed a tremendous decline in most traditional "hobbies" over the last 20 years. This is, I think, partly because people are working more, and also because so many of them seem to be spending any free time they do have in front of a screen, or "plugged in" in some other way. So in many cases our amount of regular exposure to nature is low, and seems to be getting less and less.

But still nature is out there calling to us. She is our original mother and always will be. I don't know if we ever have had enough malacologists, or ever will ever have enough malacologists, to cover the subject properly, but it's great to see that we still have some really good ones, and a few excellent serious amateurs too. Maybe our subject will go through another flowering in a few decades.

Best,

Susan J. Hewitt

xoggoth said...

I would assume Insecta is the largest, unless you count Protista which actually seems to be a ragbag of totally unrelated things that biologists cannot not be bothered to classify properly.

A factor must surely be that by far the majority of mollusc species are aquatic (I am assuming again) and harder to study.

How come we never see you get your snorkel to report on squids Mr O? Beards are crap with snorkels I found.

xoggoth said...

PS I love the idea of killer snails. Wasn't there a horror film with killer slugs coming up the plughole into a lady's bath and er.

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

The protists are not animals. So we're gonna pretend they don't exist. I don't know about that horror film, but I used to be a big fan of snorkeling. Haven't done it in a while, though.

xoggoth said...

It seem the films was called Slugs.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slugs_(film)

Pah! Call yourself a malacologist and you can't name a slug horror film. Where would this blog be without the expertise I bring to it eh???

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

There is a trailer on YouTube.

Stephanie F. Castillo said...

i just graduate from the school of biology of the national university of Panamá (thats my country)
I made my thesis about terrestrial malacology and i loved it...
I wanted to make a master degree on it
but looks like no universtiy in the world offers it...

Maybe thats why there are few malacologists...