A Greater Appreciation For: Malacology
This is Part 3 in my blog ‘mini-series’ on getting better acquainted with the various research units of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Research & Collections section. Part 1 was Vertebrate Paleontology; Part 2 was Mammalogy…this time: Aquatic Invertebrates!
Although I’ve quite enjoyed my recent forays into the realm of vertebrate research, as an entomologist I found myself asking, “Can I be done with things with internal skeletons?” [Although I note that I still haven’t been invited to participate in Herpetology, Ornithology, or Ichthyology fieldwork yet…hint, hint, hint Museum researchers].
As if in answer to my question, though, I received a welcomed invitation to accompany Dr. Art Bogan (the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Curator of Aquatic Invertebrates), Jamie Smith (Collections Manager of Invertebrates) and their research staff to do some invertebrate fieldwork. Or perhaps I should call it ‘streamwork’, since the research would be done in a local aquatic setting. Art is a malacologist; Malacology is the study of mollusks, an enormous group of invertebrates that includes snails, slugs, clams, octopi, squids, and a variety of related, squishy beasties. Trish Weaver, the Museum’s Collections Manager of Invertebrate Paleontology, describes these animals as ‘snot with a shell’ (except that some don’t have shells…reducing them to…just living mucus, I guess!).
ANYway, Art’s research interests lie in investigating the biodiversity, taxonomy, geographic distribution, and evolution of freshwater bivalves (clams) and gastropods (snails). His objective for this particular bit of fieldwork was to obtain living specimens of a few species of freshwater clams in order to make illustrations of certain clammy anatomical features for his “Workbook and Key to the Freshwater Bivalves of North Carolina PDF.” My own objective was to play in the water while NOT making too much of a fool of myself. Hey…North Carolina is hot this time of the year!
One ‘perk’ of clam-hunting is that one doesn’t need to get up before dawn or stay up late into the night to do this fieldwork. So, off we went at the respectable hour of 10am, heading for a local stream where these clams had been collected before. On the way, Jamie started explaining the anatomical differences among the species we were looking for, how to recognize them, where they might be found, etc. She was throwing around the scientific names for these critters with ease, and it became immediately apparent to me that I was the only one in the truck unfamiliar with these technical names. As a systematic entomologist, I’m accustomed to using the Latin scientific names of animals, but since I’m not well-versed in clam-ology, I was in unknown taxonomic territory! Sigh…another instance where the Director of Research & Collections is as clueless as can be.
I don’t exactly know how, but the conversation somehow turned into a discussion of the relative merits of alternative Chicken & Biscuits recipes. Reminded that, yes, I live in the South again….I found myself incredibly hungry. Hmmmmm. Thanks, Jamie.
Arriving at the fieldsite, we made our way down the steep embankment to the stream carrying dipnets, buckets, netbags, and other implements of destruction. Of course, the way was densely overgrown with thorn-bearing death-shrubs and overhanging tree branches covered in spiderwebs (and hideous, grabby spiders, as it turns out). At the water’s edge, my first impression was that the water was very turbid…very muddy and brown. The streambed wasn’t visible, except at the very shallow edges. So, how do you see the clams, I wondered to myself? And how do you avoid the angry, venomous water snakes, chompy turtles, and other fatal hazards sure to be lurking in such uninviting depths? And while we’re at it, where was that crystal-clear stream with sparkling, cool waters that I had envisioned in my anticipation of aquatic fieldwork? Ahhhh, the joys of fieldwork.
Following Art and Jamie’s lead, we plunged into the stream. Where the streambed was visible, Art explained how to look for the telltale sign of clams that had dug into the substrate. He could plainly see where the tip of a shell poked up out of the mud; frankly, it all looked the same to me….a shell, a stick, a leaf, a discarded car tire….there was no difference to my eyes. But, as the water was so muddy, we had to resort mostly to feeling around in the very thick, mucky sediment with our hands; so the fact that I couldn’t visually recognize 1-centimeter of a clamshell tip poking up amid the detritus of the stream bottom became a moot point. This still didn’t dispel my fears of the deadly, poisonous, bitey animals undoubtedly lying in wait for me…..
So, we slowly felt our way through the slime, picking up whatever clam-like objects passing through our fingers. I was quite impressed by how many clams were there…a very large and dense clam population, actually. One species of large, dark clam seemed to dominate, but we found a few others, as well. Art pointed out a few areas on the stream bank where muskrats had deposited the shelly remains of clams they had dined on (muskrats are, apparently, avid bivalve predators). All in all, after a few hours of blindly squishing around in the water (and, incidentally, losing my sandals in the gooey sediments multiple times!), we collectively
came up with 5 species of clams (including at least one of our ‘target’ species), as well as assorted snails. Notably, this was about half as many clam species as what Art and Jamie had expected to find at this site, based on previous collecting records. We arrayed our ‘catch’ on the stream bank to admire; Art selected a (literal) handful of the dominant clam species and marveled at the variation in shell morphology occurring within the population.
Mmmmkay, Art…what are you seeing that I’m not?!?! To my newbie eyes, these specimens were all identical clones of each other.For those of you who have read of my previous fieldwork exploits, it won’t be shocking to find out that I took a few minutes away from my clam-hunting duties to search for my favorite insects. And what do you know….SUCCESS! I observed some immature spittlebugs in the vegetation on the streambanks…yes, I think I’ll stay an Entomologist!!!
And that was that. We crawled out through the horrible spider-infested, thorny shrubs-of-death forest and headed home with visions of showers and clean clothes dancing in our heads. And Chicken & Biscuits….gotta get me some of that.
And what did I learn from this experience? As it turns out, a valuable lesson was reinforced for me today…and one that resonates with me in a significant way as a systematist/taxonomist working for a State government institution. It’s very easy to hear about someone like Art or Jamie and wonder why we spend taxpayer dollars to employ an expert clam-ologist, or someone who studies insects, or coyotes, or fish, or any other narrow specialty. The actual importance of these researchers, however, has greater relevance when you realize that their taxonomic expertise has more than simply academic applications.
In the case of today’s fieldwork, Art and Jamie noted the increased turbidity of the stream and the apparent decrease in clam biodiversity at this site. Put together, these are potentially important pieces of a puzzle that could eventually inform investigations into environmental degradation, water quality, and habitat preservation. These observations and documentations are the scientific data upon which laws, regulations, and ordinances are based. So, Art and Jamie are not only expert malacologists, they’re also important advocates for our state, observing and documenting changes in North Carolina’s fauna and habitats, generating data that can be used by our lawmakers to better protect us and our environment.