I am now pleased to report that a remedy is at hand. In coming months the FWGNA project will roll out a new website entitled, “The Freshwater Gastropods of the Mid-Atlantic States” which will include surveys of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and the West Virginia panhandle. Our extensive original collections, sampled from approximately 144 sites spread down the 100 mile length and across the 30 mile breadth of The First State, will confirm that a fairly reliable estimate for the number of gastropod species inhabiting the freshwaters of Delaware is indeed 20, as might have been predicted from the meager museum records available.
We will be sharing much more detail about the freshwater gastropods of all the Mid-Atlantic states in the coming months. My focus for the remainder of this essay is not on what we now know, but on what we thought we knew, that we did not.
I am not a fan of the nonprofit environmental group called, “NatureServe,” or its online database “Explorer.” But if you were to open a new window in your web browser today (19Aug13), go to www.natureserve.org, hit that “Explorer” button on the right panel, and execute a query for freshwater snails AND Delaware, the search engine will return a list of just eight species.
This is a peculiar list. Missing from it are the four most common gastropod species actually inhabiting the freshwaters of Delaware: Physa acuta (aka P. heterostropha), Menetus dilatatus, Ferrissia fragilis, and Lymnaea (Pseudosuccinea)columella. All four of these species are very nearly cosmopolitan in their distribution throughout eastern North America, and simple reference to the collections of either the DMNH or the ANSP would have returned numerous Delaware records for most of them.
The NatureServe report will also include one species that our extensive field surveys of Delaware and attendant reviews of systematic collections have failed to uncover, Physa gyrina. Populations of Physa gyrina do inhabit Ridley Creek in Delaware County, southeastern Pennsylvania, so on first reading it certainly seems possible that the NatureServe record might be bona fide. Or might this record represent a misidentification of Physa acuta? The DMNH collection does hold a single undated lot of P. acuta (locality just “Wilmington”) misidentified as P. gyrina.
On 28July13 I sent an email inquiry to Dr. Bruce Young, Director of “Species Science” for NatureServe, asking if he could provide a reference supporting his report of P. gyrina in Delaware. Dr. Young replied the next day, apologizing that “for common species we do not tie specific records to individual references or museum collections.” Ms. Margaret Ormes of NatureServe followed up with “I just looked at our database and my best guess is that it was added (as Physella gyrina) based on Burch (1989).” 
I do appreciate the courtesy of the NatureServe staff, but the facts are very plain and very ugly. The mission of NatureServe is advocacy, not science, and Physa gyrina is a trash snail, and they do not care whether arbitrarily-chosen trash snails actually inhabit arbitrarily-chosen states. The NatureServe Explorer database is a smokescreen and a ruse, designed to lend false scientific credibility to a political agenda.
Science is the construction of testable models about the natural world. Such models need not necessarily be accurate, nor even based on reliable data. I am not fussing here about the discrepancy between the NatureServe estimate of 8 freshwater gastropod species in Delaware, and the FWGNA estimate of 20. Nor am I fussing about the basis of the NatureServe estimate, which is spurious.
Science will fix these things, eventually. There are scientists who will drive 16,139 miles in a 1992 Nissan pickup, camp in the rain, and eat Dinty Moore beef stew for a week to not find Physa gyrina in Delaware. There are scientists who will dump three years of unsorted DNREC-DWR macrobenthic samples into little Petrie dishes and squint through microscopes for hours to not find Physa gyrina in Delaware. There are scientists who will sleep five nights on an air mattress in Alexandria to ride the orange line downtown to pull every drawer of physids out of the US National Museum to not find Physa gyrina in Delaware. Science ultimately fixes carelessness, sloppiness, and neglect.
No, the worst thing about the Explorer database is not that it is wrong, but that it reinforces conventional ignorance, and in so doing works against the cause we all seek to advance. Fresh young students, casting about for research ideas, will tend to assume that the freshwater gastropod fauna of North America is in some sense “known,” and divert their energies elsewhere. A proposal to the NSF Biotic Surveys and Inventories Program will be reviewed more favorably if it is directed toward the Ubangi River than to the Nanticoke, even though the freshwater gastropod fauna of the Ubangi is better documented . Reinforcement of conventional ignorance is not the main problem I have with the NatureServe organization , but it is certainly in the top ten.
How big is your budget, Dr. Young, and how large is your staff? The FWGNA project has now surveyed all or part of ten states. This we have done with no more than $5K in grant support total, over 15 years. Those 16,139 miles we drove in 2012-13 were unreimbursed. We have paid $49/night out of our own pockets to sleep on air mattresses in Alexandria. We bought our own Dinty Moore.
I will end this essay, however, on a note of hope. Despite the layers of pseudoscientific hoo-hah in which NatureServe cloaks its Explorer website, it remains just a website, run by a political advocacy group. And (how many times must we warn our students?) the internet is a wild and woolly marketplace of information, both the good and the bad, and the buyer must beware. Each report returned by the NatureServe Explorer comes with the following disclaimer: “All documents provided by this server are provided “as is” without warranty as to the currentness, completeness, or accuracy of any specific data.” In the final analysis, the Explorer database is not peer-reviewed science, and it does not pretend to be.
Thank heaven no legitimate researcher would ever confuse spurious data made available from the website of an advocacy group with reliable science. Thank heaven.
 Yes, it does seem plausible to me that the initial state-by-state freshwater gastropod distributions uploaded to the NatureServe Explorer may have been the work of some intern hired to extrapolate the broad ranges found in J. B. Burch’s North American Freshwater Snails. Burch lists 15 subspecies of P. gyrina, the ranges of at least two of which certainly include Delaware. The range of Physella gyrina aurea is given as “New Jersey to Kansas, south to Arkansas and Florida,” and that of Physella gyrina cylindrica is given as “Ontario and New York south to Virginia.” Then did our young intern simply miss Delaware when extrapolating “New England to Ohio, Tennessee and the Virginias” for P. heterostropha? And did that intern miss Delaware when extrapolating “Eastern United States, from Maine west to Iowa, south to Texas and Florida” for Menetus (Micromenetus) dilatatus? And so forth? The entire enterprise is a house of cards.
 Brown, D. S. (1994) Freshwater Snails of Africa and their Medical Importance (Second Edition). Taylor & Francis, London. 608 pp.
 My main problem with NatureServe is the pseudoscientific method by which they gin up “conservation status ranks.” See:
- Toward the Scientific Ranking of Conservation Status [12Dec11]