Unexpected snail species in long-lost collection

Tuesday June 09, 2020 Written by Published in Weekend
Some of the snail shell specimens being studied and catalogued. TEXAS A&M GALVESTON 20060801 Some of the snail shell specimens being studied and catalogued. TEXAS A&M GALVESTON 20060801

More than 5000 shell found in office of deceased expert, including surprise finds from Cooks. 

It was in 1987 that an American snail expert made a year-long journey to collect rare shells from marine caves in Cook Islands and across the Pacific.

Now, a renowned Florida museum is looking into his 30-year-old collection of Pacific Islands snail samples, after discovering it when clearing out the office of a deceased staff member.

It is believed the collection may include two species never before known to exist here in Cook Islands.

Florida Museum of Natural History collection manager John Slapcinsky is investigating snails that Texan Dr Tom Iliffe collected in trips to 12 Pacific Islands, diving around undersea caves.

Iliffe‘s collection notebook is invaluable: it list names, location, elevation, distance from the coastline, and ecological description of each collecting site.

A snail expert himself, Slapcinsky told Iliffe his collection could include several new species and perhaps the last-known records of now-extinct snails. 

Many Pacific Island land snails are endangered, and Slapcinsky needed help georeferencing the samples and their respective origins.

Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust director Gerald McCormack said land snails had faced extensive extinctions in the Southern Group, especially on Rarotonga – and sadly, one of the snails Iliffe discovered is extinct.

The Natural Heritage Trust's Biodiversity Database records 15 extinct land snails on Rarotonga, and 40 surviving native land snails, McCormack said.

McCormack said he had a list of Iliffe's 190 specimens from Mangaia, Atiu, Mitiaro and Ma‘uke, and the initial identifications.

“They were all collected on the makatea near caves or in the mouths of caves. None are from diving within caves.”

McCormack said Iliffe tentatively identified two snail species not previously recorded on the Cook Islands Biodiversity database: an introduced species from the Caribbean known as Beckianum beckianum, and another from Fiji in the genus Vatusila which is now extinct.

He had sought confirmation from the museum that Vatusila could be one of the specimens.

- additional reporting Texas A&M University

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