Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Non-plants, Non-pests, and Non-sense at the USDA

To the FWGNA group:

The essay that follows is based on a diary I kept this past summer chronicling my extended efforts to obtain an importation permit for living freshwater snails from Europe. Any of you who anticipate similar needs in the future will find tidbits of helpful advice scattered about below. Otherwise, the piece is humbly offered for your entertainment.


“Thank heaven I know somebody on the inside,” I remember thinking to myself as I dashed off a quick email to my friend Jim Smith at the USDA-APHIS-PPQ-CHPST-PEREL. “Otherwise this could become a real pain.”

I had just resolved, earlier that afternoon, to try to import a sample of living freshwater gastropods into the United States through the front door. Heaven knows I’ve done it through the back door all my life – sometimes in my luggage, sometimes in brown packages accompanied by less than candid paperwork. I remember smuggling Lymnaea peregra out of Hungary in a 3-dram vial of lake water, tucked into my sock. But this time, I resolved to myself, I am going to do this thing right.

But my initial foray into the forest of American bureaucracy had ended in utter defeat. I knew I needed a permit, but what type, and from where? If Planorbarius corneus, the European snail I wished to import, hosted some medically-important parasite, I should need to go to the CDC. If the snails were endangered I’d need to go to the FWS. And if they were agricultural pests, I’d require a permit from the USDA. But P. corneus (below) has no medical or agricultural importance, nor is it the object of any conservation concern. To what agency would a befuddled biologist turn?

After browsing around the various cabinet-level websites, I resolved to begin my inquiry at the USDA. This brings us to the top of our story, and a series of cordial emails with our good friend Jim Smith of the United States Department of Agriculture – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – Plant Protection and Quarantine – Center for Plant Health Science and Technology – Plant Epidemiology and Risk Assessment Laboratory in Raleigh, NC.

Yes, Jim assured me, I’d come to the right agency. And the necessary paperwork would be their PPQ form 526, “Application for Permit to Move Live Plant Pests or Noxious Weeds.” Apparently approval of such an application by the USDA is required to “move” any “live non-vertebrate animal,” regardless of whether such animal is a plant pest or not. I understand that there is an initiative within the USDA-APHIS-PPQ-CPHST-PERAL to rename PPQ-526, “Application for Permit to Move Live Plant Pests and Live Plant Non-pests or Live Non-Plant Pests and Live Non-Plant Non-Pests,” but it’s tied up in red tape.

My buddy Jim indicated that his Permits Unit prefers On-line submission of the Form 526. For this I would need to obtain a “level 2” account through the USDA “eAuthentication” website.

I’m sure all of us have applied for on-line accounts many times in our lives – it’s a regular indignity of life in the 21st century. But the USDA system is the worst I have ever seen. In addition to a username and a PIN, one must specify a 9 – 12 character password with letters and non-letters with caps and non-caps but without dictionary words. The system rejects passwords with even short, unintended dictionary words, so the password must be carefully designed to be entirely non-word. And in addition to supplying one’s mother’s maiden name, one must answer five additional questions about one’s high school and high school mascot and high school mascot’s mother’s maiden name.

The second-most irritating aspect of my application for a on-line account with the USDA was that the agency specified very clearly that my real, genuine name in their system must match the name on my government-issued photo ID (i.e., drivers’ license), but there was no way to make their system accept the suffix, “Jr.”

But the first-most irritating thing about the process was that, after I’d finally entered my personal information and my high school mascot and received a confirming email and replied to that email to “activate my account,” I was still not authorized to conduct electronic business with the USDA. I was instructed to present myself in person with photo ID in hand at a “USDA Service Center.” And I was cautioned, “We recommend that you call ahead to ensure that an employee trained as a Local Registration Authority (LRA) will be available to provide the service at the time you plan to visit the Service Center.”

I’ve been filing my taxes on-line with the IRS for years without ever presenting myself in person. But just for the privilege of applying for a permit to import 30 snails in a plastic coke bottle, I found myself driving 40 minutes to the edge of town for examination by a trained USDA-APHIS-PPQ-LRA. All the while wondering how this person might handle the “Jr” issue.

On that score, I need not have worried. Lenora, the LRA on duty at the USDA North Charleston Service Center was quite efficient and very nice. The most important thing to her was that the address on my photo ID matched the address in their on-line system. This was my home address, not my business address (to which the dangerous snails would be delivered), but if that were to become a problem, I resolved to deal with it later. I felt a twinge of optimism on my 40 minute drive back to The College, printer page identifying me as a “Validated Level 2 Customer” tucked safely into my brief case.

That afternoon I boldly attacked the aphis.usda.gov website, hitting “apply for a permit” then “apply for a PPQ permit” then “apply on-line for a PPQ 526.” This took me to the login screen, which worked! “Welcome to ePermits, your one-stop Source for Agricultural Permitting.” And what might the first screen be? Please enter your address.

The system remembered my simple name (“Robert Dillon”) with no middle initial, my email address, and absolutely nothing else. I had to re-enter all my contact info, telephone numbers, and institutional affiliation. Then “create application” then “Plant Protection and Quarantine” (again) then “PPQ 526” (again!)

The on-line version of the PPQ 526 is called, “Permit to Move Live Plant Pests, Biological Control Agents, Bees, Parasitic Plants, or Federal Noxious Weeds,” a somewhat expanded title that still doesn’t include what I actually wanted it to do. There were seven steps to complete the process, which took me about an hour.

The most interesting step of the application process was entitled, “Articles.” This is the single unmodified noun that the USDA-APHIS-PPQ has adopted to describe all the pests, biological control agents, bees, plants, weeds, non-pests, non-weeds and non-bees that it regulates. Here the applicant finds search boxes that will allow him to “find regulated article by scientific name” or “find regulated article by category.”

On a whim I pulled down the list of categories to “Invertebrate Pests – Mollusks” and found a short and peculiar list of 66 gastropods. Yes, most were indeed pest land snails and slugs. But the marine Strombus spp, Turbo spp, and Cypraea spp? Thank heaven for the USDA, or our shores should become infested with cowries.

And yes, I found a smattering of freshwater gastropods in the “Invertebrate pests – mollusks” list, including Physa acuta and 7 species of Pomacea. And – wonder of wonders – I found the entry “Planorbis corneus!” What is the chance that, in a nearly-random sample of 66 gastropods from a worldwide fauna of ten-to-the-6th, one might find precisely the European freshwater snail species one was interested in? But (Alarm bells dimly ringing!) in 1806 most Europeans seem to have followed Froriep in adding two syllables to the genus nomen. Today my snail is generally identified as “Planorbarius corneus.” Might this tiny discrepancy scotch the deal?

Step 6 of the application was, “Attachments.” My good friend Jim suggested to me that “a separate page describing exactly how you wish to import, the suggested uses of the organism, and why it is not a risk to US environment or agriculture helps speed the process.” So I did.

After clicking the “submit” button Jim went on to suggest that I give the permits unit approximately a week to process my application, then contact Ms. Carmen Soileau of the Biotechnology Regulatory Service (USDA-APHIS-BRS). “She will be the one analyzing your permit, and can answer any questions.” So I did that too.

In comparison with the ordeal of filing an application, the remainder of the process was relatively painless. I did receive (almost immediately) a confirmation that my application number P526-080415-010 had been submitted. No problems developed, and in only 9 days I was alerted to download a “letter of no jurisdiction” from my own little corner of the USDA web site.

I received neither a permit, nor a non-permit, from the USDA. Rather, my “letter of no jurisdiction” turned out to be a simple statement, signed by Ms. Soileau, stating that “an import permit is not required.” I was advised to “include this letter with each shipment into the United States, in order to facilitate movement and inspection by Customs and Border Patrol Officers.” If not, I presume, the authorities would not know that the importation of my non-plant non-pests is not non-permitted.

We’ll keep in touch,


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Review: Field Guide to the Freshwater Mollusks of Colorado

Kudos are due to Mardy Nelson Harrold and Rob Guralnick for their charming little (4 x 6”) book, A Field Guide to the Freshwater Mollusks of Colorado, now available as a free PDF download from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The authors have pioneered a new model for publication in our line of work, and I personally find some inspiration in the effort.

Our good friend Rob Guralnick has been at the University of Colorado Museum since Shi-Kuei Wu retired in 2000. Mardy Nelson Harrold was his M.S. student and Leigh Anne McConnaughey, who illustrated the new Field Guide, is his wife. Rob tells me that their work was primarily targeted toward the needs of CDW field biologists, but they also hoped that the avid fishing community might become interested.

To that end Harrold & Guralnick have produced a beautifully illustrated and cleanly formatted guidebook with 7 pages of introduction in the front, 8 pages of reference material at the back, and 111 pages of identification manual in the middle, covering 25 freshwater gastropod and 16 bivalve species of Colorado. Each species is allotted a pair of facing pages for a brief description, habitat and range notes, and colorful illustrations of the shell, both magnified and life size. Higher taxonomic groups are also introduced with a couple pages of general biological background, and all the species in each group marked with distinctive thumb tabs for easy reference.

Conspicuous by their absence from the Field Guide are literature citations, synonymies, dichotomous keys, anatomical notes, and distribution maps. The scientific name does lead the common name – this isn't quite a bird book yet. But clearly, Harrold & Guralnick are not looking inward toward the Academy, but rather outward, toward an interested and engaged public at large.

The authors dedicated their work to Dr. Shi-Kuei Wu. And it should be clear that A Field Guide to the Freshwater Mollusks of Colorado could not even have been contemplated without the collections that Shi-Kuei stewarded at the University of Colorado Museum for so many years, and the Inventory of Colorado freshwater mollusks he published in 1989 (1).

Shi-Kuei’s 1989 Inventory did feature detailed distribution records and a more complete review of the literature, but is currently out of print. This poses an interesting question. Why didn't Harrold & Guralnick simply update Wu (1989), rather than starting fresh? Might it have been possible for the present authors to preserve Wu’s more scholarly approach, boil his large dot-maps down to shaded figures of a more manageable size, add their lovely illustrations and formatting, and expand the appeal of this new work to amateurs without subtracting any of the utility for professionals?

Maybe not. At some point, formal scholarship becomes off-putting to the general public. And with respect to the taxonomy and systematics of freshwater gastropods, I fear that we professional malacologists may have barreled through the off-put point a hundred years ago. As Exhibit A, I give you the Physidae.

Shi-Kuei’s Colorado Inventory listed eight species of Physa - anatina, cupreonitens, elliptica, gyrina, heterostropha, integra, skinneri, and utahensis. The Harrold & Guralnick Field Guide sets aside P. “skinneri(2) and substitutes Physa acuta and Physa gyrina for the remainder, clean and simple, without explanation or comment.

The actual rationale behind the author’s decision to fold Wu’s elliptica, heterostropha, integra, and utahensis into P. gyrina, and to subsume Wu’s anatina, cupreonitens, and gyrina under P. acuta, was the subject of my email to this group last month (3). But how many of you reading my words right now actually had the patience to wade through the tortuous message I sent on October '08, "Backwards Snails Backwards?" Admit it - most of you hit the delete button last month, didn't you?

There are about 175 addresses in my email address book under the FWGNA tab, roughly 50% academic, 25% agency or other professional, and 25% private individual. So I’d guess I've got at least 50 readers right now (maybe 174!) who would have been perfectly happy never to know that somebody used to think there were eight species of Physa in Colorado, and really don't care why somebody else now thinks there are only two ... well, three actually, but we'll let it go. The Harrold & Guralnick Field Guide is for you.

In the final analysis, it’s hard to gauge the size of the audience to which A Field Guide to the Freshwater Mollusks of Colorado will appeal. But whatever the size that audience may be, I’d like to think that it could grow. Rob tells me that his book has won a couple trade association awards, and the first printing (of more than 1,000 copies) is nearly gone. So viewed perhaps not so much as a scientific monograph, but rather as an outreach effort, the Field Guide of Harrold & Guralnick is to be highly commended.


(1) Wu, Shi-Kuei (1989) Colorado Freshwater Mollusks. Natural History Inventory of Colorado 11: 1 - 117. University of Colorado Museum, Boulder.

(2) Physa skinneri is a junior synonym of P. jennessi, which is indeed a distinct and valid species. But since Wu (1989) reported skinneri from just five sites in Colorado, I think Harrold & Guralnick can be excused for excluding it.

(3) Malacological Mysteries II: Backwards Snails Backwards!  [14Oct08]

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Malacological Mysteries II: Backwards Snails Backwards!

Quite a few malacological mysteries have their origins in the life and work of Thomas Say, the "Father of American Malacology" (1). From his high perch among the founders of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Say described many of the most widespread and familiar mollusks in the New World. Yet, as we saw in our June '08 essay on Lymnaea humilis (2), his descriptions were spare, his figures few and poor, and his original collections lost. So in this, the second installment of an occasional series, we'll pick up our magnifying glasses and sleuth our way through another dark and tangled maze, tracking the true identity of Say's mysterious Physa heterostropha. Along the way we'll encounter another striking example of the incompatibility between science (the construction of testable hypotheses about the natural world) and law (as represented by the international code of zoological nomenclature.)

The biology will not be at issue here. The best evidence available at present suggests that two morphologically variable species of the genus Physa range across the length and breadth of North America, one bearing a convex shell apex and a two-part penial sheath, the other bearing a concave shell apex and a one-part penial sheath (3). Both have been described and re-described many times, accumulating dozens of aliases in the process.

The concave species was first described by Draparnaud in 1805, not here in America where it is native, but rather as an introduced species in France. The earliest name for this physid, which I have nominated (4) as "the world's most cosmopolitan freshwater gastropod," is Physa acuta. The second-oldest name available for American physids is Thomas Say's (1817) Physa heterostropha (5), which F. C. Baker (6) nominated to the post of "most misunderstood mollusk in America." And the third-oldest name is Say's (1821) Physa gyrina (7), clearly and unambiguously bearing a convex shell apex.
Thomas Say's written description of "Lymnaea" (later Physa) heterostropha (8) stated that the apex is "acute," which might suggest that he was holding a shell of the concave species in his hand on that fateful day in 1817. But his small and poorly-detailed figure (at only 17 mm certainly intended as a 1:1 representation) appears to show a convex apex (at far left above). And the type locality ("Delaware River") might be inhabited by either species.

If the nomen "heterostropha" is correctly applied to the species of American physid with a concave apex, it is a junior synonym of acuta, and disappears. But if heterostropha is applied to the convex physids, it would be the senior synonym of gyrina, and by priority the correct name for a species of freshwater snail widespread across North America.

Modern scholarship has cast doubt on whether Say's type specimens actually remain in the collection of the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia. But there exist today not one but two very old lots of Physa heterostropha in the ANSP collections which for many years were believed to have originated with Thomas Say (9). They bear no data of any sort beyond their Latin binomena, and they contain specimens bearing both concave and convex apexes.

The first monographic review of the American Physidae was that of S. S. Haldeman (1842), Say's successor at the ANSP (10). Haldeman figured 19 Physa heterostropha shells on two plates, including (to my eye) six with convex apexes and 13 with concave. The next monograph was that of Binney (1865) who (apparently quite randomly) selected one shell with a very concave apex and figured it over the label, "Physa heterostropha, from Say's type" (11).

Frank Collins Baker was the first to document the striking difference in the penial morphology of the concave and the convex physids, working in Wisconsin in 1928 (6). He gathered 5 species of the former group into the subgenus Physodon, bearing a one-part penial sheath, leaving 15 convex species in the subgenus Physella (s.s.), with penial sheaths divided into two parts. Baker tentatively listed heterostropha among the Physella (s.s.), on the basis of the convex shells of the specimens he had personally collected in the Philadelphia area. He did not consider that the species ranged into Wisconsin, however, and hence admitted no direct observations of its penial morphology.

Our modern concepts of the physid taxa are largely due to the work of George Te (12), as reproduced in Burch's (1980) "North American Freshwater Snails" (13). Although the origin of Te's sample of P. heterostropha is not clear, his concept of the species as bearing a concave apex and a one-part penial sheath has come to predominate in the years that have followed. This is the understanding of P. heterostropha that my colleagues and I brought to our research synonymizing heterostropha under P. acuta (4).

But there is yet one additional coil in the serpentine history of America's most misunderstood mollusk. For astute readers will note that at no time during its first 172 years in the scientific literature did anybody formally designate a lectotype for Say's Physa heterostropha.

That solemn duty was assumed by Shi-Kuei Wu in his (1989) inventory of the freshwater mollusks of Colorado (14). Wu wrote, "The two type lots housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was actually (sic) mixed lot (together with Physa gyrina) and had not been positively identifiable (Baker, 1964). After examining these two type lots, I have concluded that this confusion can best be rectified if the specimen figured by Haldeman (1842) on Plate 1, fig. 10 in his monograph should be designated as lectotype. That specimen (ANSP 280031) is hereby so designated."

It is not clear why Wu picked the tenth of Haldeman's 19 figures of P. heterostropha, nor is the match between Wu's lectotype and Haldeman's #10 especially convincing, as can be seen in the group figure above (labeled 1842 and 1989). It is quite clear, however, that Wu selected an extremely convex specimen, effectively synonymizing gyrina under Physa heterostropha. And in identifying the other specimens in the mixed lots - those with concave apexes - as "Physa gyrina," he introduced a new confusion that I don't think existed prior to 1989. He got the backwards snails completely backwards.

Wu went on to recognize eight species of Physa in Colorado, about half of which he reversed. He assigned the names gyrina and anatina to concave shells, while in the larger community those names are typically associated with convex populations, and assigned the names heterostropha and integra to convex shells, when most workers would associate those names with concave populations. This confusion carried into the 1997 "Missouri Aquatic Snails" book of Wu, Oesch and Gordon (15), which included 12 species of Physa, gyrina re-interpreted to its original position with the convex group but heterostropha and anatina still backward. And at least one allozyme paper was also published with the backwards snails backwards, that of Liu in 1993 (16).

I am not an attorney, but my reading of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature suggests to me that Wu's (1989) type designation may be valid. His concept of heterostropha is defendable all the way back to 1817, and given its not-infrequent use in the subsequent literature, would seem unlikely to be overturned on appeal. But as a scientist, it seems clear to me that the name "heterostropha" has become worse than useless - it is an actual impediment to our understanding of the evolutionary history of an important group of organisms. To substitute an ambiguous name like "heterostropha" for the much cleaner name "gyrina" makes no practical sense.

So the bottom line is that I intend to call the concave species acuta, the convex species gyrina, and consign heterostropha to the dustbin. Add another line to my lengthy rap sheet in the file cabinet at the ICZN squad room. And when the taxonomy police come to surround the building with guns and dogs, well, let's just say ... They'll never take me alive!

P.S. From Gary Rosenberg
Date: Tue, 28 Oct 2008 13:32:25 -0400
To the FWGNA group:

Those of you with an unquenchable thirst for malacological mystery may enjoy my email exchange with Gary Roseberg below, regarding the type of Physa heterostropha. In our latest twist, The Butler (yours truly) has been cleared of all charges. But the mystery deepens. Did Thomas Say's holotype ever reside in the ANSP? If not, what deceived such clever investigators as W. G. Binney, H. A. Pilsbry, and H. B. Baker? And if so, what has become of that type material today? Has there been foul play?

Only The Shadow knows

Subject: Re: Backwards Snails Backwards!
Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2008 14:34:22 -0400
From: "Gary Rosenberg"
To: "Dillon Jr., Robert T"

ICZN Police! Come out with your head up!

I'm please to inform you, Dr. Dillon, that the charges against you have been dismissed. The lectotype designation by Wu has no standing, because there is no evidence that the Haldemann material was studied by Say. ANSP 280031 was donated by Haldemann, and is labeled as Haldemann's types. This means that they are Haldemann's figured specimens, not types of earlier named species.

Best wishes,

Subject: RE: Backwards Snails Backwards!
Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2008 14:47:08 -0400
From: "Dillon Jr., Robert T"
To: "Gary Rosenberg"

Dear Gary,

Good to hear from you, old buddy.

So do you have any idea why everybody for 150 years considered that particular lot or lots to have been Thomas Say's, and conversely, how we have now decided that it isn't? And when did this reversal of opinion occur? Is this your own insight, or that of some other scholar, and on what evidence was this conclusion based? Has some sort of "retraction"of H. B. Baker been published, or is this just an informal understanding?

Thanks for the reprieve,

Subject: RE: Backwards Snails Backwards!
Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2008 18:12:59 -0400
From: "Gary Rosenberg"
To: "Dillon Jr., Robert T"

Hi Rob,

>>>So do you have any idea why everybody for 150 years considered that particular lot or lots to have been Thomas Say's... We don't even know that; we don't know what lots people were referring to, as explained further below. >>> and conversely, how we have now decided that it isn't? And when did this reversal of opinion occur? Is this your own insight, or that of some other scholar, and on what evidence was this conclusion based? Has some sort of "retraction" of H. B. Baker been published, or is this just an informal understanding?
This is my own interpretation. Unfortunately, Baker didn't state the catalog numbers of the lots he thought came from Say. Haldemann's figured specimens were not catalogued until 1962 (hence numbers in the 280,000s). I don't know if they were in the collection before then, but other Physas of that vintage was catalogued around 1915. (We didn't start assigning catalogue numbers here until the 1890s.) It is strange that the Haldemann material was catalogued so late. It could be that it resurfaced later, or it might have been left in the collection uncatalogued because it contained multiple species. Then, it preparation for Baker's type catalogues, numbers were assigned later.
The Haldemann material was originally glued onto boards, with specimens arranged as figured on the plates. Most of the specimens have since been removed from the boards (which are kept with ANSP 280031). There are two lots from Haldemann containing material he identified as P. heterostropha, one for plate 1, the other for plate 2. It is possible that Baker (1964) meant these lots when he referred to our having two lots from Say. But our catalog does not state that these are type lots and the labels do not state that they are types of particular species. Yet specimens from the same set of boards were catalogued at the same time and were entered as types in our catalogue.
Haldemann did not state that he had examined material of P. heterostropha from Say, but he did note Say connections for several other species. For example, Haldemann obtained specimens of P. gyrina and L. caperata from Mrs. Say and he examined L. obrussa, Amnicola lustrica and Paludina transversa in the Academy's collection. If Say's material was at the Academy, it would have been unusual for Haldemann to combine it with his own.
So I conclude:
a) There is no evidence that Haldemann had access to Say's material of P. heterostropha. Wu's (1989) lectotype designation is therefore invalid.
b) The only evidence that Haldemann's lots of P. heterostropha are the two lots that Baker referred to is that they are no other Say lots that he might have been referring to. So either there are two lots now missing from the ANSP collection, or Baker was referring to the Haldemann material.
c) Binney (1865) refers to types of P. heterostropha at ANSP and illustrates one. Pilsbry (1894, "Critical list of mollusks collected in the Potomac Valley. PANSP 46: 11-31) refers to "the type". These specimen(s) can no longer be identified. If they correspond to the Haldemann material they are not types; if they are correspond to other lots, they have been lost. Either way, no type material exists for P. heterostropha.
d) If Says' description is not sufficient to identify the species, then a neotype is needed. By the way, the type locality is not the Delaware; Say (1817) said "Inhabits the Delaware river and many other waters of the United States....", so a neotype could come from anywhere in the US.
Maybe this should be written up formally?
Best wishes,


(1) The Wikipedia entry on Say would benefit from a contribution by the malacological community.

(2) Malacological Mysteries I: The type locality of Lymnaea humilis. [25Jun08]

(3) Wethington, A.R. & C. Lydeard (2007) A molecular phylogeny of Physidae (Gastropoda: Basommatophora) based on mitochondrial DNA sequences. Journal of Molluscan Studies 73: 241 - 257. A PDF download is available from our October '07 on the classification of the Physidae.

(4) Dillon, R. T., A. R. Wethington, J. M. Rhett and T. P. Smith. (2002) Populations of the European freshwater pulmonate Physa acuta are not reproductively isolated from American Physa heterostropha or Physa integra. Invertebrate Biology 121: 226-234. [PDF]

(5) Say, T. (1817) The article, "Conchology" from the 4th volume of the American edition of Nicholson's British Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences, Philadelphia.

(6) Baker, F. C. (1928) Freshwater Mollusca of Wisconsin, Part I, Gastropoda. Bull. Wisc. Geol. Natur. Hist. Survey, no. 70. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. I published an appreciation of F. C. Baker in November '06.

(7) Say, T. (1821) Descriptions of Univalve Shells of the United States. Journal of the ANSP 2:172.

(8) "Lymnaea heterostropha - Shell sinistral, subovated; color, pale yellow, chestnut or blackish; whorls four, the first large, the others very small, terminating rather abruptly in an acute apex; aperture large, somewhat oval, three-fourths of the length of the shell, or rather more; within of a pearly lustre, often blackish; lip a little thickened on the inside, and tinged with dull red." (Say, 1817)

(9) Baker, H. B. (1964) Type land snails in the Acady of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Part III. Limnophile and thalassophile Pulmonata. Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelpha 116: 149 - 193.

(10) Haldeman, S. S. (1842) A monograph of the Freshwater Univalve Mollusca of the United States, Physadae. E. G. Dorsey, Philadelphia. 40 pp.

(11) Binney, W. G. (1865) Land and Fresh Water Shells of North America, Part II. Pulmonata Limnophila and Thalassophila. Smithsonian Misc. Collections No. 143. 161 pp.

(12) Te, G. A. (1978) The systematics of the family Physidae (Basommatophora: Pulmonata). Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Michigan. 325 pp

(13) Burch, J. B. (1980, 1982, 1989) North American Freshwater Snails. Malacological Publications, Hamburg, MI.

(14) Wu, Shi-Kuei (1989) Colorado Freshwater Mollusks. Natural History Inventory of Colorado, Number 11. 117 pp.

(15) Wu, Shi-Kuei, R. D. Oesch & M. E. Gordon (1997) Missouri Aquatic Snails. Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series Number 5. 97y pp.

(16) Liu, H-P. (1993) Diagnostic genetic loci for species in the genus Physella. Malac. Rev. 26: 1 - 8.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Invaders Great and Small

Although we strive to maintain a broadly American perspective, some regionalism is bound to creep into any project involving such profoundly local creatures as freshwater mollusks. Looking back over my posts in the last several years, I fear I may have focused on invasions by spectacular viviparid and ampullariid gastropods in the southeast (1), while neglecting equally important offensives launched in the north and west by a smaller-bodied but far more numerous army, that of Potamopyrus antipodarium.

The "New Zealand Mudsnail," (or simply "NZMS") was first reported in North America in the mid-1980s, from the Snake River of Idaho. Our colleagues Dave Richardson, Dan Gustafson, Billie Kerans, and others have developed a marvelous web-based resource to track the spread of this critter in the West, as well as to catalog the burgeoning literature regarding all aspects of its biology [link turned off]. There is also a NZMS Conference, which had its fifth meeting in 2007.

Although the natural habitat of the NZMS is generally considered to be the muddy margins of lakes and rivers, in the media it is almost always associated with pocket change. The photo above is from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The biggest news for 2008 has been the spread of P. antipodarium into Lake Michigan. NZMS populations were first reported in Lake Ontario in 1991, and in Lake Erie in early 2005 (2), so the arrival of the snail in the other Great Lakes would seem a foregone conclusion. But the Lake Michigan discovery (3) was picked up by the Associated Press, and in mid-August I found myself reading a quote from our good friend Kevin Cummings (of the Illinois Natural History Survey) in the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier.

The other big news from the NZMS front seems to be the spread of the snail into northern California and southern Oregon. In late 2007 Potamopyrgus was reported in Lake Shasta, and in early 2008 populations were discovered in the Umpqua and Rogue Rivers, prompting the usual hand-wringing in the newspapers locally.

Is it possible to predict (4) biological invasions of this sort? The 3 mm Potamopyrgus reproduces parthenogenetically and grazes on algal cells and fine organics in the cold, clear trout streams of the Yellowstone region. What ecological characteristics might this "mud snail" share with a 70 mm "apple snail," laying eggs on emergent vegetation, consuming whole macrophytes in stagnant ponds near Myrtle Beach? All the important variables, it seems to me, can be collapsed into two - one of the organism and one of the environment.

Successful invaders must have "weedy" life history adaptations. Although there are many correlates of weediness, I suggested in my book (5) that the key variable might be relative reproductive allocation. Populations allocating energetic resources to reproduction greater than one order of magnitude beyond expectation for their body size I called "R-adapted," for "Ruderal" (6). Although I'm not aware of any direct data, I suspect that both Potamopyrgus and Pomacea are R-adapted.

The other factor is easy to state but much more difficult to measure than reproductive allocation. Successful invaders must find resources available for exploitation. Thus invasive species tend to be ecologically different in some significant respect from (initially far more numerous) native populations with which they might otherwise compete. In the golden days of community ecology this was called the "empty niche hypothesis", although ultimately the definition of the word "niche" became confused. In any case, it is clear that Pomacea could not have invaded the ponds in Myrtle Beach if all the macrophytes had already been eaten by Manatees.

So it seems to me that the two characteristics successful invaders tend to share are that they are weedy and different. All the exotic freshwater mollusks we have seen spread across the United States in the last century - Potamopyrgus, Pomacea, Bellamya, Melanoides, Bithynia, and yes, certainly Corbicula and Dreissena - seem to have high reproductive capabilities (relative to their body sizes) and are strikingly different from the native North American freshwater molluscan fauna that they have joined.

So am I going to step forward with a prediction of North America's next foreign invader? Nope. To do that, I'd want to be familiar with the freshwater molluscan faunas of five other continents. And I don't even know our own yet!


(1) I have written at least three posts on the Pomacea invasion, most recently August '08. My most recent update on the Bellamya invasion was in October '05.

(2) Levri, E.P, A. A. Kelly and E. Love (2007) The invasive New Zealand mud snail (Potamopyrgus antipodarium) in Lake Erie. J. Great Lakes Res. 33: 1-6.

(3) The benthic samples were taken in 9/07 by workers at the INHS Lake Michigan Biological Station, but apparently not processed until earlier this summer.

(4) We've got a paper currently in review that covers this subject very broadly: Cowie, R. H., D. G. Robinson, R. T. Dillon, Jr., and J. W. Smith. Alien non-marine snails and slugs of priority quarantine importance in the United States.  Published in 2009: [pdf]

(5) See Chapter 4 in: Dillon, R. T., Jr. (2000) The Ecology of Freshwater Molluscs. Cambridge University Press.

(6) This is not to be confused with the little-r of "r and K selection."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Two Dispatches from the Pomacea Front

In May we reported the discovery of a population of South American apple snails (Pomacea insularum) in a residential subdivision near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, extending the range of that invasive pest about 500 km north. This month we update our report with both good news and bad. We also report another surprise addition to the fauna of South Carolina, the native Florida apple snail (Pomacea paludosa), not typically considered to be an invasive species.

"I Was Scared for The Kids"

The bad news is that our Pomacea insularum introduction in the Myrtle Beach area has turned out to be much more extensive and longstanding than we originally reported, with several additional populations discovered in residential areas during the months of June and July, as well as on a golf course. As of 8/1/08, biologists from the SC Department of Natural Resources had found evidence of infestation in 35 ponds and water bodies (PDF map). The good news is that the DNR has moved promptly and efficiently to eradicate the snails, and we are fairly confident of success.

Media attention seems to have played an important role in mobilizing public sentiment. In late June, an invasion by "harmful snails" or "worrisome snails" was the subject of several television news stories and reports in the Myrtle Beach Sun News (1), and at least one article in The State (2) newspaper in Columbia. Reports specifically mentioned a threat of meningitis, and included quotes like, "There's thousands. They're all over," and "I was scared for the kids." Notice the heavy rubber glove on the hand holding the snails in The Sun News photograph at left. This seems to have prompted the general citizenry of the Myrtle Beach area to inspect all the local ponds and ditches, and to contact the DNR with requests for eradication. Our colleagues at the South Carolina Aquatic Nuisance Species Program have responded with an aggressive program of copper sulfate application, and we do hope that the problem is coming under control.

Pomacea paludosa in South Carolina?

Yes, it's true! Earlier this week our DNR colleague David Knott and I visited Spring Island, a private golf and country club community south of Beaufort, SC, at the invitation of Dr. Chris Marsh of the Spring Island Trust. Thanks also to Tony Mills for serving as tour guide. We confirmed small but apparently well-established populations of the native Florida apple snail, P. paludosa, in two golf course ponds. That's David bravely bare-handing a sample at left. Note that the egg masses of P. paludosa are much whiter (and the individual eggs much larger) than those produced by the South American species introduced near Myrtle Beach (See the PDF flier from the SCDNR for several nice illustrations.)

Pomacea paludosa is primarily an inhabitant of the Florida Everglades, ranging as far north as springs by the Flint and Ocmulgee Rivers in south Georgia (3). It has never been considered "invasive." In fact, populations of P. paludosa seem to have been declining for years, as water flows have been disturbed, wetlands drained for development, and genuinely invasive species (such as P. insularum) spread through Florida. But Chris thinks it most likely that the Spring Island population of P. paludosa was introduced on aquatic vegetation when the golf course was constructed in the early 1990s. This does call into question the meaning of the word, "invasive," doesn't it?


(1) "Worrisome Snail Spreading to Two More Horry Subdivisions" Myrtle Beach Sun News, 3July08.If the direct link to the newspaper site above doesn't work, a copy of the article is available from the FWGNA.

(2) "Harmful Snails Invade South Carolina" The State (Columbia) 22June08.If the direct link to the newspaper site above doesn't work, a copy of the article is available from the FWGNA.

(3) Thompson, F. G. (1999) An Identification Manual for The Freshwater Snails of Florida. Walkerana 10(23): 1 - 96. Online version 2004.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gene Trees and Species Trees

I’ve just returned from the 2008 meeting of the American Malacological Society in Carbondale, where sometimes our science moved forward, and sometimes it seemed as though we were fighting to hold it back. Confusion over molecular phylogenetic techniques - what they can and cannot tell us about evolution - seems to be pervasive in our discipline, and may be growing. During the discussion that concluded the final symposium of the meeting, “Describing Mollusk Species in the 21st Century,” one of our colleagues went so far as to venture, “We all agree that gene trees are the same as species trees, right?” And mine may have been the only voice, of perhaps 100 present, raised in protest.

Our collective confusion seems to stem, at least partly, from a misunderstanding of the process known as “coalescence.” Though the entire week in Carbondale, as would be typical for any meeting of systematic biologists, speakers presented evolution as a branching process, unfolding from the past to the present as a series of random bifurcations to an often mind-numbingly large number of tip sequences sampled today. In 1982, however, J. F. C. Kingman (1) opened a fertile field of theoretical inquiry when he became the first to model evolution from the present to the past, as a random process of binary joining. Kingman called the particular mathematical process involved the "n-coalescent."

Kingman’s initial coalescent model was simple genetic drift viewed backward in time. Assuming a constant population size, random mating, and no selection, he showed that it is possible to describe the probability distributions of the genealogical trees of all the alleles in a population, and the time it would take them to coalesce into a most recent common ancestor. In the last 25 years, theoreticians have developed Kingman's model and explored all three of its primary assumptions in great detail.

The effects of population subdivision on the coalescent process, for example, are vividly demonstrated by the results of W. B. Jennings & S. V. Edwards, published in the September 2005 issue of Evolution (2). This work initially escaped my attention, and perhaps the attention of many of our colleagues, because (Shame on me!) the research deals with birds, the opposite of mollusks.

Overcoming their poor choice of study organism, however, Jennings & Edwards reviewed a variety of observations from historic biogeography, morphology, and behavior to suggest that two Australian species of grass finch, Poephila acuticauda and P. hecki, are sister species, diverged more recently from each other than from Poephila cincta. The authors then sequenced single copies of genes from 30 anonymous nuclear loci for the three species, and obtained the expected acuticauda/hecki sister relationship in 16 cases. Their sequence data suggested that acuticauda and cincta were sister species in 7 cases, hecki and cincta were sister species in 5 cases, and yielded ambiguous results for the remaining two genes, for an overall success of 16/30 = 53%.

My attention was called to these results as I was struggling through Chapter 5 of John Wakeley’s new book, “Coalescent Theory, An Introduction" (3). Quoting Wakeley directly (p 164), “A fundamental realization is that gene genealogies (often called gene trees) are not identical to phylogenies, or species trees.” The probability that the two types of trees are discordant is a function of the internode time, T. This is not the total time since the origin of the taxa being examined, nor the time since they diverged, but the internodal time during which they were diverging (Wakeley's Figure 5.4, at left).

The phenomenon has been termed "incomplete lineage sorting," and has been considered a problem by phylogenetic systematists (4). But evolutionary scientists consider such sequence polymorphism a potential source of important data. Given a discordance of 12/30 and a generation time of one year, Jennings & Edwards estimated T from the divergence of the outgroup P. cincta to the divergence of the sister species acuticauda and hecki to be about 300,000 years.

At least as important as an understanding the difference between a gene tree and a phylogeny, however, is an understanding of the difference between a phylogeny and a model of biological speciation. Ornithologists did not recognize the three sets of finch populations by the specific nomena acuticauda, hecki, and cincta because of any of the 30 genes studied by Jennings & Edwards. Rather, the species were described on the basis of the plumage, song, and other behaviors by which the birds distinguish each other. Traits such as these are the result of natural selection.

Evolutionary science was born, 150 years ago, when a well-studied gentleman from England proposed that speciation might be the result of natural selection. But the assumptions underlying the 30 gene trees made by Jennings & Edwards, and indeed the assumptions underlying every phylogenetic tree shown by every researcher at the AMS meeting in Carbondale, were strictly neutral. So a statement to the effect that “we all agree that gene trees are the same as species trees” is equivalent to saying, “None of us here believes that Darwin foolishness, do we?”

I would suggest that gene trees of the sort typically on display at our recent meeting are best understood as weak, null hypotheses of population relationships. Even in this era of rapid and cheap sequencing, we malacologists do not typically examine multiple individuals per population, or multiple populations per species. And if we sequence more than one gene per individual, we typically concatenate our sequences into a single analysis. Thus our inference regarding the actual evolutionary relationships between the populations represented at the tips of our gene trees is very, very weak.

But given a gene tree, and heaven knows we were given a lot of them in Carbondale, one might well test to see if it corresponds to the species tree. Under any model, neutral or otherwise, it might or it might not. The recent literature includes several papers reporting striking discordance between gene trees and species trees in groups of freshwater snails (5 - 8). On the other hand, however, Chuck Lydeard, Amy Wethington, and I have found fairly close correspondence between gene trees (CO1 and 16S) and species trees (estimated from experiments measuring both prezygotic and postzygotic reproductive isolation) in the freshwater pulmonate family Physidae (9).

So in conclusion, I object to the statement, “We all agree that gene trees are the same as species trees” for three reasons – it is incorrect, wrong, and bad. It is incorrect under the neutral model, since it neglects the error associated with incomplete lineage sorting, and it has been demonstrated wrong by 150 years of observations on the importance of selection in the speciation process. And it is bad because it’s a science-stopper. The relationship between any particular gene tree and any set of natural populations is a fertile area of inquiry; one which I hope will see renewed interest in the future.

PS - From Kevin Roe:
From: kjroe@iastate.edu
Sent: Thursday, July 17, 2008 11:24 AM
To: Strong, Ellen; Kevin J. Roe
Cc: fwgna@hotmail.com; Dillon Jr., Robert T.
Subject: Re: FW: Gene Trees and Species Trees

To the list members: Although I am not a member of the FWGNA group I want to clarify something, namely the question posed at the AMS meeting in Carbondale that prompted Rob to alert the community to the process of lineage sorting etc.The question I asked was: "Does everyone here agree that gene trees equal species trees?" because to me that was the implication of where the discussion was going. Personally, I do not think that gene trees necessarily equal speciestrees and therefore am concerned about the use of barcoding for species delineation (intentionally or unintentionally).

Kevin J. Roe
Natural Resource Ecology & Management
Iowa State University
339 Science II
Ames, IA 5011-3221


(1) Kingman, J. F. C. (2000) Origins of the coalescent: 1974 - 1982. Genetics 156: 1461-1463.

(2) Jennings, W. B. & Edwards, S. V. (2005) Speciational history of Australian grass finches (Peophila) inferred from thirty gene trees. Evolution 59: 2033-2047.

(3) Wakeley, J. (2008) Coalescent Theory, An Introduction. Roberts & Company, Greenwood Village, CO. 326 pp.

(4) Maddison, W. P. 1997. Gene trees in species trees. Systematic Biology 46:523–536.

(5) Dillon, R. T., Jr. & R. C. Frankis (2004) High levels of mitochondrial DNA sequence divergence in isolated populations of freshwater snails of the genus Goniobasis. Am. Malac. Bull. 19: 69-77.

(6) Lee, T., H. C. Hong, J. J. Kim and D. O’Foighil (2007) Phylogenetic incongruence involving nuclear and mitochondrial markers in Korean populations of the freshwater snail genus Semisulcospira (Cerithioidea: Pleuroceridae). Molec. Phylog. Evol. 43: 386-397. See my essay of February '08 for more.

(7) Walther, A., T. Lee, J. B. Burch, and D. Ó Foighil (2006) E Pluribus Unum: A phylogenetic and phylogeographic reassessment of Laevapex (Pulmonata: Ancylidae), a North American genus of freshwater limpets. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 40: 501-516. See my essay of July '07 for more.

(8) Dillon, R. T., Jr. & J. D. Robinson (in press) The snails the dinosaurs saw: are the pleurocerid populations of the Older Appalachians a relict of the Paleozoic Era? JNABS.

(9) The manuscript detailing most of our observations on reproductive isolation is still in preparation. But the gene tree has been published: Wethington, A.R. & C. Lydeard (2007) A molecular phylogeny of Physidae (Gastropoda: Basommatophora) based on mitochondrial DNA sequences. Journal of Molluscan Studies 73: 241 - 257. See my essay of October '07 for more.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Malacological Mysteries I: The type locality of Lymnaea humilis

Lymnaea humilis (Say, 1822) was among the first North American lymnaeids to reach formal description. Thomas Say's terse, one-paragraph effort was quite vague (1), no figure was provided, and the type specimens have been lost. But the diminutive shell size that Say specified, “seven-twentieths” of an inch (9 mm), was sufficiently diagnostic for subsequent authors to connect his nomen “humilis” to an extremely common and variable species widespread through most of the United States and Canada. Hubendick (2) listed at least 18 junior synonyms of L. humilis (3), and there are certainly more.

Say's type locality has always been given simply as "South Carolina," my vastly triangular home of 83,000 km2. Thus I was a bit daunted last week, but not especially surprised, to receive a request for topotypic Lymnaea humilis from a parasitologist affiliated with the World Health Organization, Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Santiago Mas-Coma of Valencia, Spain. Lymnaea humilis is a potential host of the liver fluke Fasciola, primarily a parasite of livestock but occasionally infecting man (4).

This post is an open reply to Prof. Dr. Mas-Coma. Here I report the rediscovery of a population of lymnaeids from the Charleston area that may plausibly have served as the basis for Thomas Say's 1822 description, review subsequent developments through which the concept of L. humilis seems to have shifted from the Charleston-area species to a second species ranging further north, and propose that the type locality of L. humilis should not continue to be given as "South Carolina," but rather restricted to a site on the Susquehanna River in New York.

Identification of the precise point of origin for the 9 mm lymnaeids on Thomas Say's desk in 1822 presents a bit more than the usual challenge. It seems clear that the sample was sent to him from Charleston. The author's acknowledgement of a "Mr. Elliott" in the species description was certainly a reference to the noted Charleston naturalist, Stephen Elliott (1771 – 1830), primarily a botanist but with a wide variety of interests. Elliott's collected papers at the Gray Herbarium Library contain an 1822 letter from Thomas Say with identifications for a box of shells.

The problem, however, is that suitable habitat for small, amphibious lymnaeids is not common in the Charleston area. Such snails are typically found on mud or exposed surfaces above the water’s edge. But throughout the Carolina lowcountry and coastal plain, fresh waters have indistinct and variable margins, choked with aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation. Lymnaea humilis does not seem well adapted for life on the leaves and stems of macrophytes.

In his 1911 monograph, F. C. Baker (5) cited two Charleston-area collections of L. humilis courtesy of W. G. Mazyck, "a low lot in Alexander Street, now filled up and destroyed," and "Sullivan's Island, four miles from the city." Recently our former student and colleague Bryan England has redirected our attention to the freshwater gastropods of Sullivan's Island, and especially to the unexpectedly abundant fauna inhabiting the vernal ponds that form behind dunes and formerly dunal areas.

Sullivan's Island has a long and interesting history. Colonel William Moultrie built a palmetto-log fort on its western end in 1776, from which he successfully repelled an amphibious assault by the British. A brick and masonry fort bearing Moultrie’s name was constructed on the site in 1809 to defend the eastern approach to Charleston Harbor. Among its famous residents have been the Seminole chief Osceola and Edgar Allen Poe, who was posted to Sullivan's Island in 1827-28.

Access from Charleston to Sullivan's Island in the 19th century should have been very convenient, through the regular ferries and packets supplying Fort Moultrie. Stephen Elliott could easily have taken advantage of such transportation to explore the great variety of habitats that must have been available outside the immediate vicinity of the Fort, ranging from farm to maritime forest to marsh.

Today most of the island is residential, crisscrossed by roads and drainage ditches. Such ditches are vernal, with a muddy sand base, and typically vegetated with cat-tails and alligator weed (Above, Note 6). And on the exposed margins of the shallow water that fills these ditches after a spring rain, one can find small lymnaeids matching Say’s 1822 description (Below, Note 7). The complication is that, using modern criteria, these little snails would not be identified as Lymnaea humilis today, but rather as Lymnaea cubensis (Pfeiffer, 1839). Click the photo below for an enlargement.

I believe it was F. C. Baker (1911) who published the first systematic observations on the radula of the Lymnaeidae (5). He did not have access to South Carolina humilis (ss), which he assigned to the genus "Galba," but he did publish observations on two taxa he considered subspecies, G. humilis modicella and G. humilis rustica, both of which bore three cusps on their first marginal teeth (Below, Note 8). At the same time he also observed that the radula of Galba cubensis bore bicuspid first marginals.

By 1928, Baker (10) had discarded "Galba" in favor of "Fossaria" as a genus to contain small amphibious lymnaeids of this sort. Tricuspid species he kept in the subgenus Fossaria (ss), and the bicuspid species (Below, Note 9) he separated to a new subgenus "Nasonia," which was subsequently emended to "Bakerilymnaea" (11). See my post of Dec '06 for a review of the tortuous history of the classification of the Lymnaeidae.

In any case, the association of the name humilis with tricuspid populations persisted. Hubendick (2) collapsed all the little "fossarine" lymneids of North America down to four: tricuspid truncatula in Alaska (12), tricuspid humilis through Canada and most of the United States (including South Carolina), bicuspid bulimoides west of the Mississippi River, and bicuspid cubensis ranging only as far north as Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

But Say specified nothing about the radula in his original description. His three brief sentences referred only to the shell, and would fit bicuspid and tricuspid taxa equally well. And recent field observations suggest that bicuspid populations are widely scattered through coastal areas of South Carolina and into North Carolina as well. But the nearest population of small, amphibious lymnaeids with tricuspid first-marginals to Charleston seems to be by the Catawba River in Lancaster County, about 250 km north.

At this point in the history of American Malacology, the nomen humilis has become firmly associated with the tricuspid populations common through most of the United States and Canada. It would be a great disservice to workers in the field today to reapply Say's 1822 name to the southern bicuspid populations now known as L. cubensis, leaving one of 18 younger names for the tricuspid. I therefore propose that the type locality of L. humilis be reassigned.

The concept of the "type locality" did not exist in the early 19th century. And fortunately, Thomas Say mentioned a second locality in his 1822 description of Lymneus humilis. He wrote, “It differs much from any other species I have seen; a variety of it, sometimes quite black, was found by Dr. M'Euen at Oswego on the Susquehanna." I interpret this comment to mean that, although Say's description did in fact initially state, "inhabits South Carolina," the author considered that his Lymneus humilis ranged throughout much of North America. Hence it is within the discretion of subsequent workers to "restrict" Say's type locality, under Recommendation 72E of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, to some more precise spot.

The present essay is not a publication for purposes of the ICZN. But I have gotten the impression from our colleague Prof. Dr. Mas-Coma that he is currently working on such a publication, and that the specimens from Sullivan's Island I am packing to send him this week will figure in it. So in the final analysis, this post is an informal appeal to him, and to all workers who may follow us into posterity. Let us restrict the type locality of Lymnaea humilis (Say 1822) to the banks of the Susquehanna River, where the little amphibious lymnaeids are entirely tricuspid.

There is yet one final complication. In 1825, Say formally described the population "found by Dr. M'Euen at Oswego, on the Susquehanna River" as Lymneus modicelles. It was this taxon that Baker (1911) lowered to subspecific rank, as Galba humilis modicella, noting as he did that Say misspelled the name of the town. The locality is correctly spelled Owego, not "Oswego."

In conclusion, let us resolve henceforth that the type locality of Lymnaea humilis shall not be "South Carolina," but rather Owego, Tioga County, NY, on the Susquehanna River. And I plan to write "Lymnaea cubensis" on the label of the vial I'll be packing for Valencia tomorrow.


(1) "Lymneus humilis - Shell ovate-conic, with slight wrinkles; volutions nearly six, convex, terminal one very minute; suture well indented; aperture about equal in length to the spire; labium with an obvious plate of calcareous deposit; a distinct and rather open umbilical aperture; color pale reddish-white or yellowish-white. Total length seven-twentieths. Inhabits South Carolina. Of the dozen specimens sent me by Mr. Elliott, none exceeded the limit here assigned to the species.” (J. Acad. Natl. Sciences Phila 2: 378, 1822)

(2) Hubendick, B. (1951) Recent Lymnaeidae. Their variation, morphology, taxonomy, nomenclature, and distribution. Kungl. Svenska Vetensk. Akad. Handl., 3: 1-223.

(3) Synonyms of humilis include: cyclostoma, dalli, decampi, doddsi, exigua, ferruginea, galbana, modicella, obrussa, owascoensis, parva, peninsulae, petoskeyensis, pilsbryi, rustica, sterkii, tazewelliana and umbilicata.

(4) There's a fairly complete introduction to the biology of Fasciola, from the snail's point of view, in Chapter 6 of my book: Dillon, R. T. (2000) The Ecology of Freshwater Molluscs. Cambridge University Press.

(5) Baker, F. C. (1911) The Lymnaeidae of North and Middle America, Recent and Fossil. Special Publication, no. 3. Chicago: Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences.

(6) Cat-tails mark the ditch at the NE corner of Atlantic Avenue and Station 26.5. The use of "station" rather than "street" in Sullivan's Island harkens back to the days when there was regular trolley service from Charleston.

(7) The habitat close-up shows quite a few small, amphibious lymnaeids, as well as the dead shells of Physa acuta and a land snail. For scale, the Physa shell is 10.2 mm standard length.
(8) Radula of L. humilis, collected by the James River in Botetourt Co, Virginia. The median row is marked with an arrow. Examine the rows immediately to the left and right of the median row to see the tricuspid first marginals.

(9) Radula of Sullivan's Island lymnaeids. Again, the arrow marks the median row – look to the left and right for bicuspid first marginals.

(10) Baker, F. C. (1928) Freshwater Mollusca of Wisconsin, Part I, Gastropoda. Bull. Wisc. Geol. Natur. Hist. Survey, no. 70. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

(11) See page 249 and note #80 of Burch, J. B. (1989) North American Freshwater Snails. Malacological Publications, Hamburg, MI.

(12) Lymnaea truncatula (Muller 1774) is a holarctic species common throughout Europe and Asia. Hubendick wrote, "It is a matter of some doubt whether L. humilis in North America is a distinct species or is specifically connected to L. truncatula." This would be a fertile ground for future inquiry.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pomacea Spreads to South Carolina

Word reached us last week that a population of Pomacea has become established in the vicinity of Myrtle Beach, SC, extending the range of this invasive pest north about 500 km. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is currently studying options for control.

At this time the introduction seems localized to a single pond in a trailer park in the town of Socastee, about 10 km W of Myrtle Beach. The area was quite poorly drained prior to development, and ditching and filling operations have resulted in the creation of several retention ponds in the neighborhood. The population of Pomacea was discovered by SCDNR personnel investigating complaints of excessive algal growth in these bodies of water.

On May 6 our colleague David Knott of the SCDNR reported "lots of P. insularum egg clutches (above) and three snails (two were copulating) in one of several ponds." Thanks to David for the photo below.

Most of us in this group are all too familiar with the damage to aquatic crops and macrophytic vegetation caused by populations of Pomacea introduced worldwide. The pest has spread throughout Florida since its initial introduction in the 1980s. In 2005 it appeared in South Georgia (Post of 11/05), where attempts to control it have not been notably successful.

Although we do not have any evidence regarding the origin of the South Carolina population, we speculate that the initial introduction may have come through the release of unwanted pets. Pomacea (of several species) were readily available in local aquarium stores until a few years ago, and hobbyists traveling up from Florida might easily transport wild-collected animals.

The pond inhabited by the South Carolina population drains through underground culverts toward the Intracoastal Waterway, a degraded habitat that would not suffer terribly from the release of molluscicides. But upstream just a few kilometers is the mouth of the Waccamaw River, still lovely in spots, leading north to Lake Waccamaw, the pristine home of several endemic species.

Come on, boys! Are we going to take back-sass from a bunch of fat snails in a scum pond (above)? This is South Carolina - let's nuke 'em!

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Classification of the Planorbidae

The Planorbidae is the most diverse of the basommatophoran pulmonate families, including hundreds of species and dozens of higher taxa worldwide. Planorbids are the most successful freshwater pulmonates in the topics, the notorious Biomphalaria, Bulinus, and Indoplanorbis serving as the intermediate hosts of schistosomiasis in both the Old World and the New. It is a point of pride for us in North America, therefore, that the classification of this family generally recognized around the world today was heavily influenced by the work of a hometown boy, Frank Collins Baker of Urbana, Illinois (1).

Here we pick up a thread left dangling somewhat over a year ago, the life and career of F. C. Baker (1867-1942). Baker cultivated a comprehensive knowledge of freshwater pulmonate taxonomy, great skills as an anatomist, and a tremendous feel for the living organisms to which he devoted his life. And his (1945) "The Molluscan Family Planorbidae" was a masterwork (2).

Baker originally conceived of his monograph in two parts - a systematic review of the anatomy and classification of all higher planorbid taxa worldwide, recent and fossil, and a survey of the nominal species inhabiting the Americas. Although only a skeletal 16 pages of text for the second half of the project had been completed at the time of his death, together with a phenomenal 140 plates, the first half was sufficiently complete for his editor (H. J. van Cleave) to carry to publication posthumously.

Baker left us lovely anatomical illustrations and detailed morphological observations for 81 species and races of planorbids representing diverse taxa worldwide, together with ranges (both geological and geographical) and species lists. On this basis he proposed a classification of the family recognizing 4 subfamilies, 36 genera and 18 subgenera.

We have noted previously that Baker's taxonomy remained firmly rooted in 19th-century typology throughout his career. The quality of the science in his 1945 monograph of the Planorbidae was not substantially different from that in his 1911 treatment of the Lymnaeidae. But what made the 1945 work so special was its worldwide scope. Baker offered detailed anatomical observations for Pingiella and Polypylis from China, Intha and Indoplanorbis from India, and Planorbis, Anisus, Segmentina and Hippeutis from Europe, and included seven higher taxa known only as fossils. The work should be better known today than it is.

For our modern understanding of planorbid systematics has developed in close parallel to (but lagging slightly behind) our understanding of the Lymnaeids. And just as Baker's (1911) lymnaeid monograph was supplanted by Bengt Hubendick's (1951) masterpiece (3), so too was Baker's (1945) monograph of the Planorbidae supplanted by Hubendick in 1955 (4).

With his greater access to the African and Eurasian faunas and his skill with thin-section microscopy, the Riksmuseum's Bengt Hubendick was able to explore planorbid anatomy down to the finest detail. The classification he proposed ten years after Baker's was explicitly evolutionary (Above, Note 5), postulating ancestral and derived character states and hypothesizing phylogenetic relationships. But rather than setting aside all the earlier classifications and starting afresh, as he had done with the lymnaeids four years previously, Hubendick built directly upon the foundation that F. C. Baker had laid. He wrote, "It is not my intention to give a complete account of the morphology of the different planorbids. Baker (1945) has already presented a comprehensive monograph on the subject." So taking "the recent genera accepted by him as a starting point," Hubendick was able to re-monograph the entire family Planorbidae in just 90 pages. Hubendick's monograph of the Lymnaeidae, a much smaller family with but two genera, had required 223 (6).

Hubendick criticized Baker rather severely for neglecting two major planorbid groups, the African Bulinus and the South American Plesiophysa (7). And indeed Hubendick's classification began by recognized three subfamilies - the Planorbinae, the Bulininae, and the Plesiophysinae - the latter two of which Baker had omitted. But within the Planorbinae, Hubendick recognized 31 genera gathered into 6 - 9 "tribes," broadly agreeing with Baker's genera and subfamilies. Hubendick did not advocate subgenera.

Later in his life, Hubendick (1978) suggested that the ancylid limpets be might united with the planorbids into a gigantic "Ancyloplanorbidae," but this idea never caught on, at least in its proposed form (8). The concept has recently been revived by a number of molecular phylogenetic studies, which tend to confirm that the planorbids and the ancylids are both paraphyletic and interdigitated (9). The classifications implied by molecular data are jarringly different in some respects from those that have been established by common practice over the last 50 years (10), and time will be required to see what new system stabilizes.

Meanwhile, back in North America, Burch (11) adopted the Hubendick (1955) classification with a couple minor tweaks and one big shove. He subsumed the genus Armiger under Gyraulus following Meier-Brook (12), and substituted the older name Vorticifex for the younger synonym used by Hubendick, Parapholyx (13). In addition, Burch also advanced a rather dramatic change to the genus Helisoma that has baffled me and many of our colleagues for quite a few years.

Both Hubendick and Baker recognized the North American genus Helisoma as a large, natural group. Baker sorted roughly 77 species and subspecies of Helisoma (too many!) into four subgenera: Planorbella, Seminolina, Pierosoma, and Helisoma (ss). Burch trimmed the specific nomina down to about 17. Then without explanation or attribution, he raised Planorbella to the genus level and diverted 16 of the species (from three of Baker's former subgenera) into it. To the single species of Helisoma left behind (H. anceps) Burch added the single species of the Baker/Hubendick genus Carinifex, C. newberryi. No rationale was offered for any of the Helisoma rearrangements whatsoever.

During the course of my research for last month's essay, however, I stumbled across a clue to Burch's "mystery of the exploded Helisoma" - the 1966 monograph that Dwight Taylor published on the Plio/Pleistocene mollusk faunas of the American West (14). At the end of that lengthy work, in his section entitled "taxonomic notes," Taylor raised Baker's Planorbella to the genus level and removed the Helisoma exactly as Burch was to advocate ten years later, offering as his rationale the apparent axis of shell coiling (15). Baker's 530 pages of anatomical observations seem to have been dismissed by Taylor, and he was apparently unaware of Hubendick's monograph entirely (16). Variance on a single shell character was sufficient for D. W. Taylor to explode the genus Helisoma, and apparently Burch found Taylor's evidence convincing.

The FWGNA project has adopted a (slightly updated) version of the Hubendick (1955) system for the classification of the (roughly 45) species of planorbids inhabiting North America, preserving Helisoma and Carinifex as recognized by Baker. We do not mean to imply that a 50-year-old hypothesis is (or could be!) the definitive model of planorbid evolution. Indeed, we think it quite likely that future malacologists may adopt some classification that combines the ancylids and planorbids along the lines that Hubendick himself foresaw in 1978. But for now, this is it:


(1) The Legacy of Frank Collins Baker  [20Nov06]

(2) Baker, F. C. (1945) The Molluscan Family Planorbidae. University of Illinois Press, Urbana. 530 pp.

(3) The Classification of the Lymnaeidae [28Dec06]

(4) Hubendick, B. (1955) Phylogeny in the Planorbidae. Trans. Zool. Soc. London 28: 453-542

(5) Hubendick's "synoptic diagram" is depicted above [click here for an enlargement]. Although one certainly sees evolutionary trees proposed for fossil taxa in papers of this era, I do think that Hubendick's construction of phylogenetic trees for entirely modern taxa was much ahead of his time.

(6) But in fairness, the Hubendick (1951) lymnaeid monograph went down to the species level. Neither Baker nor Hubendick seems to have contemplated reviewing the immense worldwide diversity of planorbids any lower than the genus.

(7) And to be fair to Baker, I think he probably considered "Bulinidae" and "Pleisiophysidae" separate families.

(8) Hubendick, B. (1978) Systematics and comparative morphology of the Basommatophora. pp 1 - 47 in "Pulmonates, Volume 2A," (V. Fretter & J. Peake, eds). Academic Press, New York.

(9) Morgan, J.A.T. et al. (2002) A phylogeny of planorbid snails, with implications for the evolution of Schistosoma parasites. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 25: 477-488. Jorgensen, A., T. K. Kristensen & J. R. Stothard (2004) An investigation of the "Ancyloplanorbidae" (Gastropoda, Pulmonata, Hygrophila): preliminary evidence from DNA sequence data. Molec. Phylogenet. Evol. 32: 778-787. Albrecht, C., K. Kuhn & B. Streit (2007) A molecular phylogeny of Planorboidea (Gastropoda, Pulmonata): Insights from enhanced taxon sampling. Zoologica Scripta 36: 27 - 39.

(10) Albrecht and colleagues propose that Bulinus and Indoplanorbis be split out into a separate Bulinidae, and that the most of the ancylid limpets might best be considered a subfamily within an enlarged Planorbidae.

(11) Burch originally proposed his classification for the North American freshwater gastropods in 1978 (Journal de Conchyliologie 115: 1-9). His "North American Freshwater Snails" was published as an EPA manual in 1982, as three volumes of Walkerana (1980, 1982, 1988), and as a stand-alone book in 1989.

(12) Meier-Brook, C. (1979) The planorbid genus Gyraulus in Eurasia. Malacologia 18: 67 - 72. Meier-Brook, C. (1983) Taxonomic studies on Gyraulus (Gastropoda: Planorbidae). Malacologia 24: 1 - 113.

(13) Parapholyx (Hanna 1922) was apparently a bit more prominent in Hubendick's day, but Vorticifex (Meek 1870) clearly has priority. See Burch's Note #60.

(14) Taylor, D. W. (1966) Summary of North American Blancan nonmarine mollusks. Malacologia 4: 1 - 172.

(15) While understanding that the group he called "Planorbella" bore sinistral shells, Taylor considered the shells of Carinifex and Helisoma anceps to be dextral. In point of fact, all planorbids are embryonically sinistral, but the shells of some species flip over their backs ("hyperstrophically") so as to appear more or less dextral in adults.

(16) Actually, I suspect this was an intentional snub. See the illuminating anecdote about Hubendick in the D. W. Taylor obituary, Malacologia 50: 175-218.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Red Flags, Water Resources, and Physa natricina

This past December brought the publication of a brief paper by our colleagues Christopher Rogers and Amy Wethington synonymizing the federally listed “Snake River Physa” (Physa natricina) under the cosmopolitan P. acuta (1). How a local population of an invasive pest came to be protected under the Endangered Species Act is but one blunder in the sad history of fumbles and missteps that has characterized the record of American Malacology in the Snake River Canyon of southern Idaho. Can anything be learned to prevent such embarrassments in the future?

The misadventure began in the early 1980s, when Idaho Power Company proposed the construction of six new hydroelectric projects on the middle Snake River, perhaps to impound the last free-flowing reaches of a 122 mile section already tightly controlled by 11 dams. Environmental groups rose up in opposition (2), and I would freely confess sympathy for their cause. I have a visceral love of rivers and the lotic biota, and hate impoundments because they are ugly, stinking blights, all too rapidly infested with Bud-swilling bass fishermen.

But insults to the public aesthetic will never be as compelling to the permitting agencies as hydropower, irrigation, and jobs, no matter how egregious the choice of beer. Thus it is not a coincidence that within ten years of the announcements by Idaho Power, five species of endangered freshwater gastropods were discovered in the middle Snake River. Pyrgulopsis idahoensis, Valvata utahensis, Taylorconcha serpenticola, Physa natricina, and the undescribed "Banbury Springs lanx" were added to the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife on December 14, 1992 (3). The Idaho Power hydro projects were shelved.

About "Pyrgulopsis idahoensis" we have written much in recent years (4). Although originally believed endemic to the Snake River, it proved to be a junior synonym of P. robusta, its actual range extending over four states. Far from being endangered, the Snake River population of P. robusta may be the largest single population of freshwater gastropods on earth. Taylorconcha and V. utahensis are also not rare, and are currently being studied for delisting as well (5). And now published is the paper by Rogers & Wethington sinking Physa natricina.

Physa natricina was described in 1988 by Dwight Taylor, a reclusive millionaire whose 44-page obituary will appear in the next Malacologia (6). Although perhaps better qualified as a paleontologist, Taylor often published on the modern terrestrial and freshwater malacofauna of the American West. He is best remembered for his fanciful treatments of the Physidae (7) and the Cuatro Cienegas hydrobiids (8), imagining more higher taxa than valid biological species actually exist to sort into them.

To be fair, Taylor’s 1988 work (9) conformed to the same 19th century standards of practice under which most elements of America's molluscan fauna have been described. He did distinguish his Physa natricina from P. gyrina, a strikingly different animal which is very common in the Snake River. But the brief comparison he offered between his new species and P. integra, the synonym for P. acuta most commonly applied in the upper Midwest, should have raised a red flag. Taylor wrote that the penial sac of P. integra "is more slender, with a kink near its distal end, and is not bent near the middle." Kinks and bends in mollusk anatomy? Was Taylor nuts? (10) One need not be a malacologist - one need only to have eaten an oyster - to realize that anybody who would distinguish the internal anatomy of a gastropod by reference to kinks and bends is simply unqualified for his profession.

Taylor's work was generally characterized by false precision. For example, in his introductory description of the (entire!) subgenus Physa, he stated that the "spawn capsule...is up to about 10 mm long with 20 eggs." But even under controlled conditions here in my laboratory, we commonly record individual Physa egg masses ranging from over 100 embryos to fewer than 1. Meanwhile, about truly important matters Taylor seems to have been careless at best. His statement that the natricina holotype was deposited in the Los Angeles County Museum ("LACM 2256") seems to have been a fabrication. Christopher Rogers was finally able to track down Taylor's P. natricina holotype at the California Academy of Sciences, where it was not deposited until 1999.

And here's another red flag - the hypothesized rarity of the new species. Taylor's original description was based on but two live-collected animals, "despite arduous effort" to obtain more. But species do not exist as individuals - they exist in populations. Any generally-trained biologist might well wonder how a population as sparse as P. natricina seems to have been for over 20 years could remain viable.
In late 2005 I was pleased to accept an invitation from the Bureau of Reclamation to visit the Minidoka Dam (photo above) on the Snake River east of Rupert, Idaho, for a Physa strategy meeting. Also present were our colleagues Amy Wethington, John Keebaugh, Steve Lysne, and several others. The product of that meeting was a consensus that a sequencing project should be undertaken as soon as the next fresh P. natricina individual might be recovered from the river – a day which never arrived (11). But on the basis of what I was able to learn about that elaborately managed river system, together with my own limited observations of the environment and my general experience with the biology of physids, I offer the following hypothesis (12).

I suggest that the two individual P. acuta from which Taylor described his “Physa natricina” in 1988 may have been flushed into the main Snake River from irrigation ditches. In addition to power generation, many of the Snake River dams serve to divert irrigation water to the surrounding farm land. This is done seasonally, and both the peak diversions and the peak release flows back to the river can be high. I suggest that irrigation waters may sporadically carry elements of the canal-dwelling macrobenthos into the Snake River, including occasional individual Physa acuta.

Science is a self-correcting process. It is gratifying to see two of our own, Rogers and Wethington, designing the research program and publishing the paper that has turned us back from our 20-year blunder. But at such a cost! Literally millions of dollars have been wasted monitoring, managing, and protecting a snail that anyone on six continents could find in the ditch behind his local McDonalds, licking special sauce off the hamburger wrappers. Can we avoid even the first step down such paths in the future?

Yes, if we watch for red flags. And the biggest red flag waving over the Physa natricina blunder was not the vacuous description, the false precision, or the biological implausibility of the phantom snail's very existence. The biggest red flag was that this entire research program was motivated, from its very inception, by water resource politics.

You have heard me preach this sermon before - science and politics do not mix. When the two worldviews collide, compromises must be made, and it's always the science that suffers, in my experience. Malacology was corrupted at least four times by water resource politics in the middle Snake River 20 years ago. And science continues to be corrupted in our professional organizations, from the AAAS to the NAS, on matters ranging from global climate to stem cells. But when we see that red flag fly, we must stop.


(1) Rogers, D. C. & A. R. Wethington (2007) Physa natricina Taylor 1988, junior synonym of Physa acuta Draparnaud, 1805 (Pulmonata: Physidae). Zootaxa 1662: 45-51. A pdf reprint can be requested from the author.

(2) Wuerthner, G. (1992) No Home for Snails. Defenders May/June 92: 8 - 14.

(3) US Fish & Wildlife Service (1992). Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; Determination of endangered or threatened status for five aquatic snails in south central Idaho. 50 CFR Part 17. Federal Register 57(240)59244-57. (December 14, 1992)

(4) I've offered four previous posts on the Snake River Pyrgulopsis: Idaho Springsnail Showdown [28Apr05], Idaho Springsnail Panel Report [23Dec05], When Pigs Fly in Idaho [30Jan06], and FWS finding on the Idaho Springsnail [4Oct06].

(5) More Snake River Gastropods Studied for Delisting [14June07]

(6) Kabat, A. R. & R. I. Johnson (2008) Dwight Willard Taylor (1932-2006): His life and malacological research. Malacologia 50: 175-218.

(7) Wethington, A. R. & C. Lydeard (2007) A molecular phylogeny of Physidae (Gastropoda: Basommatophora) based on mitochondrial DNA sequences. J. Moll. Stud. 73: 241-257.

(8) Hershler, R. (1985) Systematic revision of the Hydrobiidae (Gastropoda: Rissoacea) of the Cuatro Cienegas Basin, Coahuila, Mexico. Malacologia 26: 31 - 123.

(9) Taylor, D. W. (1988) New species of Physa (Gastropoda: Hygrophila) from the western United States. Malac. Rev. 21: 43-79.

(10) Yes.

(11) See the Bureau of Reclamation's web site for the "Physa Amendment" to its "2004 Biological Assessment and Opinions for Operations and Maintenance of Reclamation Projects in the Snake River Basin above Brownlee Reservoir." There's also an (8/05) "Implementation Plan for Proposed Snake River Physa Surveys" available toward the bottom of the page.

(12) I don’t remember who first advanced this hypothesis – it was very likely in existence long before my introduction to the matter. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who holds it, but I wouldn't presume to speak for anybody else.