31 March 2009

Graves and snails

This post was about an afternoon trip to an old Jewish cemetery in Istanbul in October of last year. Our brief paper about the land snail shells we collected during that trip just got published in issue #19 of Triton. You may download a pdf copy.

Our most significant find was Helix pomacella, a rare species despite being a native of the area. In fact, Istanbul is its type location. In urban areas H. pomacella is much rarer than its native relative Helix lucorum and, unlike the introduced helicids Cantareus aspersus (Helix aspersa) and Eobania vermiculata, it seems to avoid roadsides, parks and gardens.

One of the Helix pomacella shells that we collected.

30 March 2009

Anguispira fergusoni after the winter

I have written about the 5 dormant Anguispira fergusoni, I started monitoring in November of last year (this post and this post). The purpose was to see if the snails would hibernate throughout the winter and when they would become active again. My last trip to check up on them was in early February when I found them all still sleeping buried in soil. I had wanted to go back in the middle of March, but it was either still too cold or I didn't have a chance. Yesterday, after 2 days of elevated temperatures and rain, I finally went back to the spot.

My little yellow flags were still standing and the spots where the snails had been buried looked undisturbed just like I had left them in February, but there were no buried snails to be found.

Although I don't know what happened to the snails, it is safe to conclude that the snails survived the winter and became active, perhaps recently; if any had died during the winter, I would have found its shell.

I did find 2 live Anguispira fergusoni, one among the roots of the tree and another one on the trunk, about 2 m above the ground. But because I hadn't marked the dormant snails, I had no way of knowing if they belonged to my group of 5.


If I get a chance to repeat this study this fall, I have to remember to measure and mark the snails' shells.

29 March 2009

How the snails drove poor Darwin crazy

I am in the process of co-authoring an essay on Charles Darwin and the work he did with mollusks, mainly snails (here it is). Thanks to the Darwin Correspondence Project, I've been able to search for relevant information thru the thousands of letters Darwin sent and received during his lifetime.

During the mid-1850s, Darwin experimented with land snails (see this old post). He also tried to raise snails, probably to have more subjects for his experiments. On 14 July 1855, he wrote to his neighbour John Lubbock: "… I got yesterday some more & enough specimens of Helix pomatia for my Snailery."

But apparently he wasn’t always successful in getting the snails to proliferate; in a letter dated 9 October 1856 to an unidentified correspondent, Darwin wrote: "I have been myself keeping Helix Pomatia in confinement all summer, but they have not laid a single egg, so that I have not at all profited by my scheme."

Over the years, Darwin seems to have been quite frustrated by his inability to come up with clear-cut mechanisms to explain the dispersal of land snails, especially to oceanic islands. On 3 October 1856, he wrote to his cousin William Darwin Fox:

No subject gives me so much trouble & doubt & difficulty, as means of dispersal of the same species of terrestrial productions on to oceanic islands.–Land Mollusca drive me mad, & I cannot anyhow get their eggs to experimentise on their power of floating & resistance to injurious action of salt-water.
Nevertheless, in On the Origin of Species (1859), he was able to propose two plausible mechanisms by which land snails could be dispersed. I will return to this subject in another post. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do in my Slugery.

27 March 2009

Spring has arrived; the salamander says so

One sure sign of spring around here is the eastern red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) that I start seeing under the litter in the woods. I spotted this one last Sunday actually.


They normally have a long tapering tail (for example, this one). The blunt tip of the tail of this one indicates that it lost the rest of it to a predator.

May it survive even longer and reproduce!

26 March 2009

Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence: it is worth a visit

Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel the Museum of Innocence is about a man’s pathological lifelong obsession with a beautiful woman. Of course, we’ve all heard that one before. Variations of unfulfilled infatuations are, after all, the favorite staples of storytellers since time immemorial.

This is not to say that the Museum of Innocence is not original; it indeed is, but Pamuk's creativity seem to have started running around a circle. Like Woody Allen, whose films are fixated on New York, Pamuk has the view finder of his novels focused on his beloved Istanbul and apparently he has no intention of changing that. His general storylines have also begun to be repetitious. Wasn’t the main character of the Black Book also searching for a lost woman? And so was the guy in the New Life. Pamuk’s underlying inspiration seems to be a brief love affair he had during his youth with a woman who then vanished from his life. He told that story in Istanbul, his memoirs named after his favorite city, again. Will Pamuk be able to chart himself a new course before his readers are bored of his recurring storyline?

Criticism aside, the Museum of Innocence is an intriguing book, despite its intimidating heft—the Turkish original (Masumiyet Müzesi) I just finished reading is 580 plus pages. Pamuk is a good storyteller and has created an engaging tale. An interesting twist he added to the perennial love story is that his is taking place simultaneously in 2 different time frames: one as the events happen and the other years later as the same events unfold within the imaginations of the visitors to the Museum of Innocence, a building housing the memorabilia, mostly junk, collected by the protagonist to immortalize his relationship with the woman he loved. Moreover, in this novel Pamuk’s dense prose that characterized his previous works has improved for the better. Let us hope he will stick with it for the sake of the future visitors to his museum.

A ticket to the Museum of Innocence: good for one entrance and don't forget to get it stamped.

25 March 2009

The baby is sooo cute!

In the last installment of this series about my captive slugs Megapallifera mutabilis, I mentioned that I had found eggs in the slugarium.

Last weekend I found an itsy bitsy teenie weenie alug crawling around the small glass petri dish that was housing the eggs. I quickly got a small piece of tree bark covered with algae, which seems to be their primary food, and transferred the slug on it.


The baby slug was about 6 mm long. Note the numerous tiny red spots, in addition to the larger black ones, scattered throughout its mantle.


At that time, most of the remaining eggs had almost fully developed slugs in them that were recognizable by their dark spots visible thru the egg cases.


Last night I noticed that several more had hatched. I am hoping to raise as many of them as possible and eventually release them to the wild.

24 March 2009

Breaking news: Washington Post has a time machine!

The Washington Post published an interview with Maureen Freely who has been translating the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk's books. Check out the date.


Now we will get to know what books Pamuk will be writing in the future! But they made a mistake in the first sentence; it should have said "It began 17 years ago..."

A curious cardinal

A female cardinal* was flying around the trees in the backyard late Sunday afternoon. I managed to get several pictures of it. I was at least about 10 m away from it at all times and so couldn't quite see its facial expressions. But later, when I was looking at the pictures on the monitor, I was fascinated by the inquisitive look she had on her face in most instances. Was she looking at me and the camera or monitoring my cat’s movements who was also out there at that time?


At one point, she was joined briefly by a male. I suspect they have a nest in the vicinity.


*A northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), to be exact, although as far as I can tell there is no bird called the southern cardinal.

23 March 2009

Frederick Burnaby, Greeks, Armenians, old cemeteries and snails, of course

Frederick Burnaby was definitely a crazy chap; would a sane person with no obligations—unless he was spying on the Ottomans under orders from the British Government, travel on horseback in the dead of the winter of 1876 from Istanbul all the way to Iran and back? Burnaby did. Not only did he survive but he also wrote a great book about his adventures: On horseback through Asia Minor.

This is from chapter XIX:

There is one peculiarity about the Armenians and Greeks in Yuzgat [Yozgat] which attracts the attention of the traveller, and this is that many of them cannot write their own language, although they employ its characters. Their conversation is almost invariably in Turkish. In corresponding with a friend, both Armenians and Greeks will write in Turkish, but with the Armenian or Greek letters. The schools, which are encouraged by the Mohammedan [Muslim] authorities are improving the Christians in this respect. The present generation of children can most of them speak, as well as write, in the language of their ancestors.
That the Anatolian Greeks conversed in Turkish, which was their native language, and wrote it using Greek characters (Karamanlica) is well known. However, I hadn't heard about the Armenians' version of it until I noticed that paragraph in Burnaby's book. I don't know if there are any surviving examples of Turkish written with Armenian characters.

Speaking of Armenians, the ones in Istanbul appear to be hard at work destroying their own heritage. Turkish news sources (here and here and elsewhere) are reporting that an old Armenian cemetery in the Ortaköy district of the city is being replaced by luxury apartment buildings. And who was at the ground-breaking ceremony with a shovel in his hand? Why, the Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II, of course.

Picture from armahaber.

Sources are reporting that the previously undeveloped lot overlooking the Bosphorus had originally been designated a "green area" closed to development. Once again, however, corruption seems to have overruled everything else and the developers were able to obtain the necessary permits. What about the Armenian graves? According to this article, only 5 graves were transferred elsewhere, but the contents of the rest (although it's not stated how many) were dumped to a rubble field outside the city.

Money makes the world go round. Who cares about some musty, old bones when there is moolah to be made? Those who lost their ancestors' graves are apparently getting their share of "luxury condos" from the deal.

Hey, if they had their Patriarch's blessings, who am I to complain? I am not even Armenian. I couldn't care less about some musty, old bones either. What makes me sad is that one less cemetery means one more habitat lost for the native snail fauna of Istanbul. As I have pointed out in this post, old cemeteries are great places to preserve the native snail and other faunas of otherwise rapidly developing areas. After all the cemeteries are gone, what will we be left with?

Only the distant memories of the loved ones we lost.

21 March 2009

Multifarious gallimaufry of odds and ends


This cicada I photographed last summer has finally been identified on BugGuide.net as Tibicen tibicen or T. chloromera or T. davisi. Take your pick.

Our regular reader Xoggoth writes on p. 27 of his blog bloggoth: "What we really need is a giant condom that everyone can wear over their heads from birth that will protect us from the infection of religion and all the world's other isms."

Explain that to the dickhead in Vatican, if you can.

Cartoon by Peter Brookes/The Times.

Heini Hediger (1908-1992) was a Swiss zoologist who was, in the 1950s, the director of the Zoological Gardens of Zurich. In his 1955 book The psychology and behaviour of captive animals in zoos and circuses (Dover, 1968), he wrote (italics mine):
Apart from sleep, animals have a special kind of rest, a sort of semi-resting, called dozing. This state of rest is also found among primitive races, but in civilized man, as a rule, there are only hints of it in that intermediate stage between waking and sleeping.
I often doze off in the train on the way home in the evenings, sometimes dream, while, at the same time, listening to the conductor's announcements and manage to wake up right before my station. I may be civilized in certain respects, but I suppose I am not qualified to belong to Hediger's Aryan race. Oh, well.

Finally, I wouldn't mind putting my lips on a Skinny Blonde, although I would much prefer a stout redhead with lotsa carbs! You know what I mean?

20 March 2009

Stuck between a blanket and a soft pillow


Sleeping deeply...


or, maybe not.

19 March 2009

Monitoring for power of new strategies

In this post, I demonstrated how one can create a pretty decent piece of short writing by borrowing and combining related sentences from different sources. What would you get if you took sentences that were only minimally and ostensibly related to each other and combined them in paragraphs? Below is an example. I took all of the sentences from the various articles in the March 2009 issue of the Scientific American. The title of the post is likewise a combination of title words of different articles.

Let me know if you disagree with my opinions.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and certainly as adults, many of us find it painful to learn something completely new. One technique is to build a steel or concrete column, open to the ocean below the water line but closed at the top. To achieve this objective, scientists will need to trace in exquisite detail all of the organism’s biochemical pathways and identify more of the emergent properties that arise from the operation of these pathways. Bigger samples might come from chemical exfoliation. A turning point—but not a decisive victory.

The research has attracted considerable interest, particularly in far-north Queensland. Researchers are pursuing several processing routes, but which approach will succeed remains unclear. Most important, we should stop panicking. That may mean new regulations governing off-road vehicles, bait disposal by anglers, or equipment hygiene and use in the logging industry.

In our view, those concerns about monitoring are groundless—and have been for several years. There is little reason to fear a decade of stagnation, much less a depression. This conclusion turns everything upside down. In a sense, however, the existence of such a paradox is not exactly earth-shattering. To take in what was actually wrong involves abandoning the idea of locality.

18 March 2009

Busycon sinistrum from Florida

The start date of our annual pilgrimage to Florida is approaching. So I am going thru my data and photos from past trips to plan my research activities for the upcoming trip. When I am down there, I unavoidably get interested in intertidal gastropods. This one was photographed last March at a beach south of Tampa.


It is probably Busycon sinistrum, the lightning whelk, although I may be mistaken. The thing next to it is a string of its egg cases. Don't ask me how that came out of that snail; it was probably laid by a larger individual.


As its name implies and the above picture shows, B. sinistrum is a left-handed or sinistral species. You can see the snail's operculum deep inside the aperture.

17 March 2009

Lunch with turkey vultures

During my lunch hour walk yesterday I encountered a group of vultures feasting on the remains of a quite dead animal. Surprisingly, I was able to get much closer to them than I had been in the past, but because the camera I had with me had limited zooming, the pictures leave much to be desired.


Nevertheless, a colleague at work who is an experienced birder was able to identify them as turkey vultures (as opposed to black vultures). Despite the claim made here that the turkey vulture “usually forages alone”, up to 5 birds are visible in the pictures, and there were probably a few more flying around or on the nearby trees.


The thing they were eating is visible under the middle bird in the top picture. It looked like a long piece of deer skin, although no appendages or a head were visible. Its smell was already offensive from far away and I had no intention of getting closer to investigate.

16 March 2009

A tale about a vacillating god and the troubles it caused

This is the product of my waning consciousness as I was drifting into sleep late last night. Earlier in the evening, I had looked at a secular, yet conservative blog. While sleep was overtaking me, my mind was mulling over the question of whether one can be simultaneously inspired by 2 (or more) seemingly mutually exclusive and perhaps even contradictory lines of thinking to produce a unique idea.

This tale is, of course, subject to future revisions
Once upon a time, there was an imaginary universe ruled by a supreme being, a god of some sort. One peculiar phenotypic trait of this god was that it existed only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but was absolutely null on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

All the inhabitants of this universe that were intelligent enough to understand such things as philosophy and theosophy, not to mention gymnosophy, were aware of their only god’s idiosyncratic on and off existence pattern and had accepted it as perfectly normal.

This is not to say that the oscillating beingness of this supreme being hadn’t caused any theoretical difficulties among the learned folks. For one, try as hard as they might, they just couldn’t decide whether they were atheists or theists or both or neither.

You see, the problem was that on those days when the god didn’t exist, for example, on any Sunday, it was perfectly logical and rational for someone to assert that there was no god and that he or she was an atheist. And then the very next day, it was equally logical and rational for the same person to be a theist and to be devoutly and sincerely worshipping the god that was then in existence without any doubt whatsoever.

This went on for many millennia and the people kept on arguing whether they were atheists or theists or both or neither.

Then one Wednesday when there was absolutely no evidence that the said god did not exist, a resourceful kind of fellow asserted that he was now an atheist on that day and everyday from then on. To make things worse, the same fellow also announced his intentions that, although he believed there was no god, he was nevertheless going to rely–not always, but sometimes–on the wisdom that had previously been doled out by the nonexistent god.

That created a massive intellectual turmoil and nothing said, written or done made sense ever after.

15 March 2009

Slug experiment in progress

Since 10 o'clock this morning, I've been running an experiment with 6 individuals of the slug Megapallifera mutabilis. First, I let them get dehydrated by exposing them to the ambient air in small cups covered with a mesh.


I weighed each slug once an hour for 5 hours. At the end of the drying period, I placed each slug on the underside of a lid and then put the on top of a vial of water. The purpose of the 2nd part of the experiment is to let the slugs regain the water they lost in the 1st part.


It is past 5 pm now and the experiment is still going on.

13 March 2009

Who was Darwin's ridiculo-sublime friend?

In a letter1 dated August 9th 1838 to his geologist friend Charles Lyell Charles “Gas” Darwin wrote (italics mine):

You will be amused at some of the ridiculo-sublime passages in the papers, and no doubt will feel acutely a sneer there is at yourself.
I suppose Darwin meant "ridiculously sublime". He was referring to the papers a friend of his had published in the Entomological Transactions, which he was sending to Lyell. Either Darwin didn't write his friend's name or it was taken out by his son Francis who edited the letters.

Not surprisingly, the only place where Darwin's idiosyncratic phrase "ridiculo-sublime" appears on the Internet is in his letter.

Note added on 14 March 2009: I have found the complete text of the letter in Darwin Correspondence Project. Darwin was referring to Frederick William Hope (see footnote 11). It was probably Francis Darwin who had deleted his name from the version included in The life and letters of Charles Darwin.

1The letter is on p. 295 of volume 1 of The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter edited by his son Francis Darwin (1887). Full text is here.

12 March 2009

Back off you Shakespearists!

Yesterday’s post on Shakespeare attracted several comments chastising me. Gee, I had no idea Bill The Bard had so many fanatics still idolizing him. I’ve decided to respond to the commenters in a separate post. Here they are.


"Where do you think everyone's getting their ideas from if not from Shakespeare?"

Maybe that’s part of the problem. Shouldn’t we looking for new sources of inspiration after all these years? The guy died almost 400 years ago, you know.

"Me thinks the language difficulties are putting you off, and that's a shame."

Not true. I love to read the oldest papers in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions (open-access archives until the end of March, BTW). And thoſe are less than 100 years after the inſipid bard became foſſiliz’d.

"So rather than go to the source and find out for yourself, you're willing to believe what others tell you? Why?"

Nobody is telling me anything about Shakespeare but you people! These are my genuine ideas.


"You would probably enjoy Shakespeare's plays and/or sonnets, assuming that you could learn to understand the archaic 16th century English in which they are written."

See my response to Deniz’s 2nd comment.

"I think it's a shame when scientists pour scorn on the Arts."

I don’t scorn the Arts and Shakespeare’s works are not the only works of art there are to enjoy. Come on now. I have written favorably about Dadaism and American Indian art. I love Graffiti art! Who gets to decide what counts as art, anyway? Don’t get me started on that now!


"You realize just how derivative a lot of post-Beatles pop, post-Velvets 'alternative music' and post-Tolkien high fantasy is."

See my response to Deniz’s 1st comment.

"Plus there are a lot of great words coined by Shakespeare that are still used today. The words that aren't used much today are often even more interesting!"

There are also great words that we have forgotten in the Philosophical Transactions.

To read or not to read, that is not the question when it comes to Shakespeare.

Turkish science agency refutes claims of censorship

TÜBITAK, the Scientific and Techonological Research Council of Turkey, has released on its web page a public announcement explaining the removal of an article on Charles Darwin from the March issue of its popular magazine Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology). The council states that the claims of censorship were groundless and puts the blame for the confusion on an editor who had apparently attempted to include the Darwin article and change the magazine's cover “over the weekend” prior to the printing of the issue. The council also claims that (my translation) “[the subject of evolution] will be considered in sufficient detail in TÜBİTAK’s Bilim ve Teknik magazine. One issue of TÜBİTAK’s Bilim ve Teknik will be reserved for this subject.”

I am not satisfied until I see a scientifically sound issue of Bilim ve Teknik on evolution. I will be monitoring the future issues of the magazine.

11 March 2009

Definitely a fossilized bard

I am proud to announce, as I may have already done in the past, that I have never read a work of Shakespeare and probably never will. There are just too many other books to read and besides, his arguably overrated stuff would probably bore me to a premature death.

You can imagine how amused I was when I noticed yesterday that Science Daily had the story about Shakespeare's purported portrait under their "Fossils & Ruins" category.


10 March 2009

Turkey takes another step in its downward spiral towards Islamic fundamentalism

Turkish newspapers (here and here), the journal Nature as well as Turkish bloggers (here and here) are reporting that TÜBITAK, the government-controlled science funding organization of Turkey has removed from the March issue of its own popular-science magazine Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology) an article about Charles Darwin and evolution. A planned cover featuring a picture of Darwin was also replaced.


The blatant censorship was apparently ordered by TÜBİTAK's vice-president Ömer Cebeci. It's a sad occasion for Turkish science and the intellectual future of the country.

For an update, see this post.

A prayer for banality

It seems that the pathetic can’t do anything without prayer. Sadly, President Obama is not any different than his predecessors, if not worse. The Washington Post reports that “Prayer has become more common at presidential appearances under the Obama administration, including at nonreligious events such as stimulus rallies.... Historians note that there is no clear record of prayers before presidential appearances, but they could not remember prayers being said as routinely as they are now.”

The Post is also reporting that according to the results of a new survey, people without a religion now make up 15% of the U.S. population; the only group that grew in every U.S. state since 2001. At the same time, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians has dropped to 76% of the population, down from 86% in 1990.

The harder they pray the deeper they will sink.

09 March 2009

What if?

Thomas Asbridge opens his book The First Crusade (2004) with this quote from Pope Urban II:

"A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts."
Circumcising the Christians! Now, that’s an unforgivable deed indeed. The Pope delivered his speech in November 1095. His words were disseminated as quickly as possible in that age of illiteracy, undoubtedly by word of mouth, throughout the Christian Europe. And less than 2 years later, the Crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem to turn Christians and Moslems, in Asbridge’s words, "from being occasional combatants to avowed and entrenched opponents, and the chilling reverberations of this seismic shift still echo in the world today."

Asbridge goes on to add this clarification: "The image of Muslims as brutal oppressors conjured by Pope Urban was pure propaganda – if anything, Islam had proved over the preceding centuries to be more tolerant of other religions than Catholic Christendom." This brought to my mind the following question, which I am sure has been asked by many others, if not in this specific context, undoubtedly in the consideration of countless other historical scenarios. If Pope Urban II hadn’t been the lying zealot he was, would there still have been large scale Christian military campaigns into Moslem territories or would history have taken a vastly different path?

It’s hard to pinpoint the actions of one individual as the sole ultimate cause of a major historical event, but sometimes one can’t help but wonder. If Hitler hadn’t risen to power, would there still have been a world war? In some instances, there is a definite link between an individual and a historical event. For example, if Bush had never become the U.S. president, it is unlikely that there would have been a war in Iraq. On the other hand, I can’t think of any statesmen that were causatively associated with World War I.

There are, however, some major historical events associated with heads of state that, nevertheless, would have happened anyway. An example I can think of is the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans. Although the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer has traditionally been credited with the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Empire had by then become so weak that if Mehmet hadn’t come along another Ottoman sultan would sooner or later have nailed the last nail in the Byzantine coffin.

08 March 2009

Bootleg transactions of the 11th MAM meeting

The 11th meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Malacologists took place yesterday at the Delaware Museum of Natural History (DMNH) in Wilmington, Delaware. Among the 35 attendees there was one malacologist from Russia and another one from India, making this the first "international" MAM meeting. Also, the 17 talks that were given may have been the highest number ever presented. Moreover, Tim Pearce has brought to my attention something he and Charlie Sturm had noticed: no slides of cladograms were shown during this meeting!

Here are the speakers in the order they spoke, and the not-more-than-two sentence summaries of their talks.

  • Robert Robertson (Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia): Sexual dimorphism in the marine gastropod Tricolia variabilis complex.

  • Marla Coppolino (Ithaca, New York): Potential uses of fecal analyses to understand land snails' diets.

  • Katie Vazquez (Montclair State University, New Jersey): Possible influences of environmental conditions on the spread of the Asian clam Corbicula fluminea in New Jersey.

  • Charlie Sturm (Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh): How he and Tim Pearce located one of the few existing copies of a publication on the snails of Yucatan, Mexico by Juan Jose Parodiz (1911-2007) that was published in the Pittsburgh Shell Club Bulletin in 1979.

  • Aydin Örstan (Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh): The behavioral adaptations of the slug Megapallifera mutabilis that restore and maintain its water balance. (This is a project I am working on with Megan Paustian.)

  • Yuri Kantor (Russia*): How the lumun-lumun net is used in the Phillippines to collect marine mollusks in conjunction with a large international biodiversity survey.

  • Gary Rosenberg (Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia): An introduction to the Phillippine Molluscan Symbiont International Cooperative Biodiversity Group and its activities.

  • Ilya Temkin (National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.): A database he created using the software Personal Brain to link collectors, museum collections and publications.

  • Susan Hewitt (American Museum of Natural History, New York): Limpets of the island of Nevis in the West Indies.

  • Susan
    "The limpet that got away was huge."

  • Paul Callomon (Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia): How he and a team of volunteers transported the large collection of the late Japanese malacologist Hideo Katori from Japan to the Academy of Natural Sciences.

  • Adam Baldinger (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University): The recent and ongoing renovations in the Department of Malacology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

  • Paula Mikkelsen (Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca): Her recent expedition to Australia to collect bivalves for the BivAToL project.

  • Tim Pearce (Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh): Preliminary analyses of museum records suggest that the land snail Anguispira alternata may be disappearing in Pennsylvania.

  • Jerry Harasewych (National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.): An overview of the Internet database for the speciose land snail genus Cerion.

  • Shiladri Shekhar Das (India*): Diversity of the fossil gastropods of the Kutch Sea during the Bathonian.

  • Megan Paustian (University of Maryland): Competition (or the lack thereof) between the native and non-native slugs Philomycus carolinianus and Arion subfuscus, respectively.

  • Liz Shea (DMNH): Two sets of morphologically different cephalopods in the genus Brachioteuthis from North Atlantic appear to be males and females of one species.

  • Once again, I will take this opportunity to thank to Liz Shea, the curator of mollusks at the DMNH and Leslie Skibinski, the collection manager, for organizing this wonderful meeting and also for providing access to the collections. I am already looking forward to next year's meeting.

    Meeting attendees outside the Delaware Museum of Natural History. I am represented by my green bag on the left.

    Bootleg transactions of the 10th MAM meeting

    *I apologize to those whose affiliations I neglected to note.

    06 March 2009

    Further insignificant thoughts on statistical versus biological significance

    In Intuitive Biostatistics (1995), Harvey Motulsky writes:

    With large samples, even very small differences will be statistically significant. Even if these differences reflect true differences between the populations, they may not be interesting. You must interpret scientific or clinical importance by thinking about biology or medicine. For example, few would find a mean difference of 1 mmHg in blood pressure to be clinically interesting, no matter how low the P value. It is never enough to think about P values and significance. You must also think scientifically about the size of the difference.
    I had some arguments along these lines in the previous post in this series.

    Now let's look at some real data. While I was studying the mating of the land snail Oxyloma retusum, I observed the matings of 20 pairs of snails. In 13 pairs the smaller snail was on top, while in 7 pairs the larger snail was on top. Did the snails position themselves randomly with respect to each other or was the difference between the positioning of the snails statistically significant?

    I did a chi-square "goodness of fit" test and got a P value of 0.18. Since the P was greater than the "magic" cut-off value of 0.05 (5%), I could not reject the null hypothesis that the positionings of the snails was random.

    To better understand what Motulsky meant in the above quote, let's assume I had a larger sample of 100 pairs and in 65 of them the smaller snail was on top, while in 35 pairs the larger snail was on top (note that the ratio of the 2 groups is still the same, or 1.857). Now the P is ~0.003 and therefore, I can reject the null hypothesis and conclude that the positionings of the snails was not random.

    Now, let's apply the chi-square test to each set of the following made-up numbers.

    TotalGroup 1Group 2P

    We see that while the differences of 1 out 10 and 10 out of 100 are not statistically significant, a difference of 100 out of 1000 is significant enough to reject the null hypothesis.

    A difference of 100 out of 1000 could indeed have biological significance. But, what about a a difference of 70 out of 1000? Could that also be biologically significant? I don't know. It depends. When it comes to biological significance, there are no magic numbers, laws or rules. Decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

    And why is a difference of 10 out of 100 not biologically significant? In borderline or ambivalent cases like these, the best thing to do is probably to repeat the study, if possible, many times. If you had 10 samples of 100 snails each and if in each sample the difference was about 10, you would be more confident to declare that the repeatedly observed difference was real and biologically significant.

    05 March 2009

    Door No. 5


    Final reminder: MAM meeting will be this Saturday

    The 11th almost-annual meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Malacologists (MAM) will take place on Saturday 7 March 2009 at the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington, Delaware.

    More information is here.

    Be there or lose your hair!

    04 March 2009

    News from the slugarium—Part 4

    Eggs! I found them late last night under the leaves on the bottom of the tank. This is good news, because it shows that the 2 slugs (Megapallifera mutabilis) I have been keeping since December are doing well enough to reproduce. Furthermore, the eggs will not only provide more slugs for future experiments, but they may also help me learn a bit about their development. In fact, I may start examining them as early as tonight.


    The masses below the eggs are fecal strings or slug poop. They are dark colored because of the green algae the slugs eat.

    Part 3

    03 March 2009

    Temperature under the snow


    Yesterday's snow storm provided an opportunity to test the insulating effect of snow on the ground. I had always heard that snow was a good insulator and thus protected the animals and the plants on or in the soil against very low temperatures. But I had no idea how effective it really was until last night when I went out and took some temperature measurements.


    The red curve is the air temperature a few cm above the snow surface between 18:50 and 23:30 and the blue curve is the temperature ~18 cm below the snow*. So the temperature above the soil was just below freezing and quite stable during the 4.5-h period when the air temperature went down more than 3.5 degrees to -9.2 °C.

    At the end I noticed that at some spots under the snow the temperature was actually above freezing; the highest temperature I measured was +1.2 °C. I was taking these measurements near a snow-covered rock that had been in the sun during the afternoon. Perhaps, the temperature was higher near the rock than it was at points away from it (those are the rocks where the tiny snail Vertigo pygmaea survives the winter).

    I am starting to realize that "climate", especially in terms of temperature and humidity, is a highly variable phenomenon at a scale of meters or less.

    Here is an information sheet on temperature under snow from 1935.

    Part 2
    Part 3

    *Temperatures were measured with a thermistor. Depth of the snow at the location was ~18 cm.

    02 March 2009

    Blue snow blues

    My niece Simla took this picture of her dog Chester in Ottawa about a month ago when they had an unusual case of blue snow. Or, maybe they didn't.


    When it comes to taking pictures in the snow, the exposure meters of cameras have never been reliable. This is not a problem specific to digital cameras; film cameras had the same issues. The snow is just too bright and it reflects the UV portion of sun light. To get the correct exposure you need to set the camera manually to overexpose.

    The blue snow can be corrected in Photoshop. One way of doing it is with the color balance controls: increase yellow to decrease blue and increase red to decrease cyan until the snow becomes white. Usually, it is also necessary to lighten up the picture. Another way, which is faster, is to use the white dropper in the Levels dialog box. Click it on the snow and Chester will be cured of his winter blues instantaneously.


    01 March 2009

    Reflections on snail photography—Part 2

    There are good reflections and then there are bad reflections. Here is an example of a bad reflection.


    I was trying to photograph a slug that was partially immersed in water. The light of the flash got reflected off the surface of water, fooled the camera.

    Here is another shot of the same subject. The slug is well exposed and there is only a sliver of brightness near the slug's tail. But this isn't a good picture either for my purpose, because it's hard to tell if the slug's tail was really in the water.


    Finally, here is the best exposure*. The narrow line of reflection on the water surface against the slug's body marks the meniscus, and in doing so, makes it clear that the slug's tail was indeed in the water. To obtain that reflection, I took several shots each with the flash, which was attached to the camera with a flexible cord, shining from a different angle.


    *Is it technically correct to refer to a digital image as an "exposure"?

    Part 1