Forgotten treasures in our collection

Forgotten treasures in our collection

Curator of Invertebrates Rodrigo Salvador tells about the discovery of a small but important collection of land snails that remained unnoticed in our collections since the 1930s. 

During ongoing work to reorganise our land snail collection, I came across a peculiar set of snail shells. These were all door snails, mostly from Vietnam, but with a couple from China and Japan as well.

Close up photo of a snail with a long shell on tree bark with tree and fungi surrounding it
Megalophaedusa martensi, the largest living door snail in the world. Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan.  Photo by Takahashi, public domain. Wikimedia Commons

Door snails (family Clausiliidae) are very peculiar among land snails in a variety of ways. Firstly, their shells coil to the left, while the vast majority of snails have shells coiling to the right (clockwise). Secondly, they have an anatomical structure called ‘clausilium’. When the snails retracts its body inside the shell, the clausilium acts as a door, sealing the entrance of the shell. That structure gives the family both its scientific and common name. Door snails are extremely abundant and biodiverse, with representatives distributed almost worldwide (not New Zealand, though).


But that was not the unusual part of the collection I had found – door snails are very common after all. The unusual bit was that they had apparently belonged to Philippe Dautzenberg, one of the most famous malacologists in the world!

Black and white photo of a bald man in a bow tie with a beard and moustache
Philippe Dautzenberg. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Dautzenberg was born in Brussels in 1849 and moved to Paris in 1867 to work in a tapestry company. He married one of the owner’s daughters, succeeded his father-in-law as director, and made a fortune. This allowed him to pursue his naturalist passion and build up a huge shell collection over the years. His is the world’s most important private malacological collection, both in terms of the diversity of species and the quality of specimens.

When Dautzenberg died in 1935, his collection contained about 40,000 species and was bequeathed to the Belgian state. His 4.5 million specimens are kept in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) in Brussels, together with his private library and personal archives. Throughout his life, Dautzenberg exchanged specimens with malacologists, naturalists and enthusiasts all over the world. He also published over 200 scientific papers, where he described hundreds of species new to science.

Some of the specimens in Te Papa’s collection still had their original labels, so I contacted Bram Breure from RBINS to take a look at them and see if they were indeed from Dautzenberg. Bram is the world’s expert in all things Dautzenberg and he confirmed the origin of the material. We have just published a full report about this on our in-house journal, Tuhinga.

La faune malacologique de l’Indo-Chine

We don’t actually know how, but a small selection of specimens from Dautzenberg’s collection was gifted by a British person, G.E. Mason, to the then Dominion Museum. They arrived here on December 4, 1935, but that’s all we know of it.

As seen above, almost all those snails came from Vietnam. They had been collected by Louis G.M. Messager (1852–1915), an officer in the French army stationed in the then French colony of Indochina, and Victor Demange (1870–1940), a trader based in Hanoi.

The specimens mostly represent species and subspecies described by Dautzenberg in collaboration with Arthur R.J.B. Bavay (1840–1923), a French pharmacist and malacologist. They described those species between 1899 and 1909 in a multi-part publication entitled Description de coquilles Nouvelles de l’Indo-Chine. But why are these shells so important anyway?


Well, several of them are type specimens. When we describe a new species, the scientific name we give it is forever attached to a single specimen (or a series of specimens), which are known as ‘types’. As name-bearers, types are the most valuable specimens of all, because all further studies depend on comparison with them.

In Te Papa’s small ‘Dautzenberg collection’, we have found type specimens of 20 species and subspecies and that’s a lot! You can see some of them below – the amazing photographs are, of course, by Jean-Claude Stahl.

six shells lined up in rows of three with two views of each shell
Clausiliidae types from the Te Papa’s collection; scale bars = 5 mm. A, Siphonophaedusa grangeri, NMNZ (M.202242); B, Phaedusa inanis, NMNZ (M.306045); C, Hemiphaedusa lemyrei, NMNZ (M.306040); D, Oospira mairei, NMNZ (M.202237); E, Oospira mairei, NMNZ (M.306044); F, Margaritiphaedusa margaritifera, NMNZ (M.202243).



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