Malacology Collection Supports Scientific Discoveries in Unexpected Places

The Academy’s Malacology Collection is a priceless resource for the study of North American land and freshwater mollusks, as it holds more relevant type (or species-defining) specimens than any other. Many were gathered during the earliest scientific explorations of the American West, when the Academy was already an established repository for scientific material. Back then, many territories were still not formally part of the United States — such as Utah. 

The land Mollusca of the entire continent of North America north of Mexico were studied and classified by the Academy’s Henry A. Pilsbry in a four-volume monograph (1939–1948) that remains the most comprehensive work for many areas. Utah is a biologically diverse region whose mountains, lakes and deserts are home to a large molluscan fauna that is increasingly influenced by climate change and introductions of alien species.  

“Utah has very diverse habitats,” explains Eric Wagner, author of a new work, Utah Mollusk Identification Guide. “These include glacial lakes and springs in high granite peaks; forests of lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, blue spruce, Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine or pinyon pine; desert springs and seeps in sandstone; sandy streams through sandstone that are prone to flash flooding; hypersaline waters like the Great Salt Lake; sagebrush lowlands; and deep oligotrophic lakes like Bear Lake to eutrophic waters like Utah Lake and small ponds.”  

“Utah’s diversity is tempered, however, by its aridity, with less vegetative biomass than wetter eastern states or the Pacific Northwest. All this contributes to the unique diversity of mollusks in the state.” 

Cryptomastix magnidentata (Snake River system native species) Eric Wagner

Wagner’s new book will be a major resource for biologists and conservationists in the entire West, and the Academy is proud to have provided some of its scientific content. 

In compiling this very comprehensive work, Wagner used images of specimens in the Academy’s collection to illustrate no fewer than 142 species. In most cases, these are sets of high-resolution color photos and tiled SEM images of often microscopic shells that were created by Drexel co-op students under our NSF-funded Type Imaging project.  

Oreohelix peripherica weberiana, Pilsbry, 1939 from the west side of the Weber River, 4 miles west of Coalville, Utah.
ANSP Malacology Collection

“The visits to the Academy were helpful for me to understand what a particular species looks like, based on type specimens. The recent project by the Academy to photograph type specimens and then make them available online was invaluable to Utah Mollusk Identification Guide,” Wagner says. 

“Museum collections and their curation are integral to natural history taxonomy,” he adds. “In addition to the type specimens defining a given species, the other specimens are also valuable for demonstrating how species vary geographically within and among populations. These specimens can also help researchers study factors that affect that variation.”

Vallonia gracilicosta montana, Sterki, 1893 from “Rocky Mountains”
ANSP Malacology Collection

“The Academy’s Malacology Department was also very helpful in getting additional images made of shells that were not necessarily type specimens, but were of interest for the book. Thanks to Paul Callomon and the others there involved with the photography projects! Hopefully now the book can help disseminate this information to additional users and readers.” 

Be a force for nature! You can support the Academy’s research by becoming a member or donating to our collections.

Written by Paul Callomon, Collection Manager of Malacology and General Invertebrates 

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