Snails share their secrets

Snails share their secrets

Te Papa holds a surprising treasure trove of tropical land snails in its collection. These snails have important biological data to share, but remained overlooked for the last century – until Rodrigo Salvador became interested…

Henry Suter

Hans Heinrich Suter, born 1841 in Switzerland, is better known in New Zealand as Henry Suter.

He graduated as a chemist in his homeland, but after arriving in New Zealand in 1887, he became interested in snails.

At first, he studied land snails, but was later gripped by marine and fossil molluscs too.

Cover page of Suter’s Manual.

Suter was responsible for the most important publication on New Zealand molluscs to date, the Manual of the New Zealand Mollusca, published in 1913–1915 and now freely available online.

A large snail collection

He studied and collected a vast amount of snails, and corresponded with researchers worldwide.

Thanks to these contacts, Suter gathered an impressive collection of land snails from all over the world.

Fortunately, this collection is now housed at Te Papa, and has been sporadically incremented with new specimens throughout the years.

Waiting to be investigated

From previous experience, I knew such old collections always hide some important stuff. It is not uncommon for specimens to remain overlooked in museum drawers, sometimes sitting there for decades waiting for a researcher to investigate them.

And so, I decided to go through these old specimens. I started with the Americas, just because they have the coolest snails. Problem is, the neotropical realm is the most biodiverse region on the planet, so I had to compartmentalise: I began with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

I analyzed all specimens and re-identified them, putting everything to modern standards of taxonomic nomenclature.

It should come as no surprise that, for several species, the snails from Te Papa became the first and only known records of the animals for entire states/provinces on those countries. To understand why this is so meaningful, just remember that Argentina is 10 times the size of NZ and Brazil, more than 30 times.

Auris spp.
Snail shells (not to scale) belong to the Brazilian genus Auris, all representing new geographical records. Despite having lost most of their color since Suter’s time, they are still quite stunning. Left: A. chrysostoma (catalog number M.255461, 5 cm high). Center: A. illheocola (M.205792, 6 cm high). Right: A. melanostoma (M.255455, 4 cm high).

Callionepion iheringi

Surprisingly, Suter held in his collections three specimens of Callionepion iheringi. This species was previously known only from the two original specimens housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia, USA), so Te Papa’s specimens are a significant find.

Callionepion iheringi has been considered by previous researchers as a primitive species in its group, the superfamily Orthalicoidea. This remains uncertain, however, until its DNA is analysed and compared to the others.

The Orthalicoidea group also contains New Zealand’s flax snails, which are likewise thought to be primitive. So, it will be interesting to discover how these two branches of the snail tree of life are related.

Callionepion iheringi (M.325306, 2 cm high), with a close-up of the tip of the shell, called protoconch (scale bar = 1 mm).

This work was published on Tuhinga, Te Papa’s research journal, and the specimens’ data and the photographs used in this work will soon be available on Collections Online.

It is always good to get this data out there, so researchers worldwide and conservationists in South America can make use of it.

Also, now that this first part is published, I will venture forth to investigate the snails from the other South and Central American countries. For this task, I’ll team up with international collaborators.

If you’re interested to learn more about Henry Suter, be sure to check the book A Colonial Naturalist (Hyde, 2017).


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