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.