A few paces down the hall from Walter the octopus, in a stretch of the museum where shoe heels echo off 19th-century cement, sits an office critical to our nation’s food supply.
The cluttered room is familiar to Academy mail distributers because it receives a steady stream of envelopes, boxes and containers stuffed with dead snails and slugs from around the world.
This is the home of the National Malacology Laboratory, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. Since 1995 the USDA has occupied an office on the fourth floor of the nation’s oldest natural history museum, specifically so it could be steps away from a collection of 10 million snail shells and the best malacology library in the U.S.
“Our job is to protect American agriculture and natural resources,” said national malacologist David Robinson. “We’re located here because of the size and scope of the collection. So you can say the Academy’s Malacology Collection is critical to protecting America’s food supply.”
On any given day, the two scientists in the federal malacology lab are sent snails and slugs that have been found in shipments of foods, lumber and other materials entering the U.S. through land and sea ports and border crossings. Within 24 hours, they identify the species, determine whether it is harmful to people, animals or plants, and decide what action to take.
Sometimes they get specimens they’ve never seen before or are not sure about and need to confirm. When that happens, they turn to the Academy’s collection of shells, which dates back to 1812, and library of scholarly works (many written by Academy scientists), which are key resources for comparing the range of variation in a particular species — physical characteristics as well as the place where it was found.
“The Academy’s collection is there to help us narrow down what species it could be. Then we turn to the malacology library to find scientific papers to further help identify the species,” Robinson said.
For example, two years ago several containers bearing 18-foot-long tail wings of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft arrived in the U.S. from southern Italy heavily infested with several species of snails. Using the Academy’s collection, Robinson identified the snails as being closely related to species that are wreaking havoc on grain crops in Australia. He took the appropriate action to resolve the issue and subsequent shipments have been snail-free.
Another time, and closer to home, Robinson discovered a population of invasive brown garden snails, Cornu aspersum, in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. They could have come off of plants transported from California to a local garden center or being raised as a food product. His knowledge from the Academy’s collection helped him determine the species and take action.
Climate change poses a new threat as invasive species are spreading to areas where they historically have not been found.
“Over time, changes in weather can make it possible for species to move to new areas, so we can’t just assume we know what something is based only on where it was found.”
Chances are the Academy has the data and specimens to help investigate.
By Carolyn Belardo
Leading image: Giant African snail, Lissachatina fulica (Bowdich), in Saint Lucia. Photo by DGR