Brian L. McElaney
Even more than twenty years after the
fact, I still remember the day my particular interest in freshwater
shells began. At age 15, I had just returned from a family trip
to the Bahamas with a suitcase full of shells. Always fascinated
by the sea, I had just succumbed to the singular lure of shelling
on the white sand beaches of the Abacos.
No sooner had my parents started complaining about the odor
emanating from dozens of unwashed beach shells than I was out
prowling the Boston area shell shops. A small shop in Newton
Centre displayed a mouth watering variety of exotic specimens
in a large display case. Among the large and brilliantly colored
Cowries and Volutes lay two smaller gastropods which were not
Slightly less than two inches long, they
appeared rather modest at first glance. Upon closer inspection,
however, the olive-colored shells appeared uniquely shaped,
with high spires, striking diamond-shaped apertures, and rows
of strong spines. The true fascination of the specimens was,
however, produced by reading the label. They were identified
as Io fluvialis, a river snail from Tennessee. Suddenly, these
"modest" gastropods became powerfully exotic.
I was astonished that such a remarkable
animal existed not on some remote reef or sea bottom, but virtually
in my own backyard. Up to that point, my impression of freshwater
shells was of the tiny, drab colored snails I had disinterestedly
observed during a science project at the local reservoir years
before. It was almost inconceivable that the relatively large
and sculptured creatures now before me could possibly belong
in fresh water. My enthusiasm was, however, dashed by the last
word appearing on the label. I had learned in school about the
Tennessee Valley Authority and its damming of the Tennessee
and other rivers, and now realized that this engineering miracle
had produced more than electricity for the southeast. It was
perhaps my first lesson in shell conservationism. The last word
on the label was "extinct".
Despite my close encounter with the Newton
Centre Io's, my collecting pursuits went in a different direction
for the next three years. Less than three months after my interest
in shells exploded on a small Bahamian Cay, I became certified
in SCUBA and plunged into the frigid waters of New England.
Not long thereafter, I joined a collecting expedition to the
Florida Keys with the New England Aquarium. Following my freshman
year in college, I dove with an Earthwatch team studying nudibranchs
in Hawaii. My love of diving led me over an over again to the
oceans and I was acquiring a large number of marine specimens.
The image of the Io's, however, was implanted firmly in my mind.
I spent one semester of my junior college
year in England. It was while backpacking through Europe during
spring break that I first reached into fresh water to collect
a shell. The shell was Lymnaea pereger and I plucked it out
of a tiny, cold stream near my youth hostel in Schaan, Liechtenstein
It was no Io, but it was an interesting shell nonetheless. As
I had been interested in the marine nerites I had collected,
I was quite enthusiastic to discover that not only did freshwater
nerites exist, but that one species lived in European rivers.
Shortly after finding the Lymnaea, I engaged in a relatively
fierce but unsuccessful search for this species, going so far
as to free dive in the muddy Avon River in Bath. As it turns
out, the little Lymnaea was the only freshwater shell I was
to collect in Europe for it was there that I acquired a brief
but intense enthusiasm for land shells that took me into the
forests and away from the streams.
Upon my return home, my attention again
turned to fresh water and I decided to see just what those little
reservoir snails were all about. Returning to the scene of my
science project, I discovered Physa heterostropha. This sinistral
snail was of some initial interest. Little did I know that it
was also ubiquitous and that I would see more Physa in the coming
years than I cared to. I expanded my search to the nearby golf
course where I discovered Lymnaea humilis and Lymnaea columella.
After a couple of golf balls whistled past disturbingly close
to my head, I decided that water-trap collecting left something
to be desired. I moved on to nearby rivers and streams, finding
a variety of tiny gastropods. It was in the inauspiciously named
Mud Pond in Dublin, New Hampshire that I began to discover just
how diverse freshwater shells could be. Here I not only found
my first freshwater pelecypod (Sphaerium partumeium) but also
discovered freshwater limpets (Ferrissia parallela). I also
discovered leeches, but was not deterred. Within a few weeks,
I had found about two dozen freshwater species within a fifty
mile radius of my hometown.
But it was the beginning of my stint in
the Army that led to my freshwater epiphany. In the summer of
1982, I was sent for six weeks of officer basic training in
Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. The first thing I did after getting to Ft.
Sill, besides learning to salute, was to purchase a map of the
post. Without any real idea of what I was looking for, I struck
out on foot in 105 degree heat, heading for the closest stream
I could find on the map. An hour later, and in the advanced
stages of dehydration, I arrived at a tank bridge over Cache
Creek and immediately spotted a large mussel valve on the bank.
I was nearly as astonished with the appearance of this creature
as I was with the Io. The shell was heavy, strong and strikingly
sculptured with beads and ridges. I had never expected anything
so striking to appear in this little stream. For the next few
weeks, I collected a dazzling variety of mussels in the Ft.
Sill streams. I had no guide book and so had little idea of
what I was finding.
Back in my new home of St. Louis, Missouri,
I immediately acquired what books I could find on freshwater
shells. A Missouri Department of Conservation publication proved
to be an outstanding resource for freshwater mussels. The Ft.
Sill shell that had spurred my fascination with the naiades
was Tritogonia verrucosa and it was one of thirteen different
mussels I had found on post that summer.
I immediately began exploring the waterways
of Missouri's Meramec River Basin and again discovered an amazing
array of mussels which virtually covered the riverbed in some
areas. But gastropods were much less abundant, which only made
another book I had acquired more tantalizing. J.B Burch's North
American Freshwater Snails contained page after page of freshwater
gastropods; some plain and some exquisite. Among the pages was
Io fluvialis. From this book, I determined that Alabama and
Tennessee would be particularly appealing places to visit. This
opportunity came in the form of a significantly rerouted drive
between Missouri and Massachusetts and a weekend trip from a
temporary assignment in Washington, D.C.
The rivers of the southeast yielded, in
a relatively short time, an excellent assortment of snails,
although not nearly the variety promised by Burch's book. I
pulled an interesting Pleurocera species out of the Coosa River
in the midst of an Alabama ice storm. Smaller streams in Alabama
and Tennessee yielded species of Elimia and Leptoxis as well
as the somewhat more commonplace Lymnaea and Campeloma.
It was a relatively fine day in the southeast
when I was exploring some of the back roads in theTennessee
River Valley. I had stepped onto the bank of one of the larger
tributaries of the Tennessee and noted a large number of small
forms in the mud. What was perhaps my best moment in freshwater
collecting came when I reached down and picked up a handful
of Io fluvialis. Some of the shells were long-dead and chalky-white
but others were clearly freshly dead, still bearing their periostracum.
It was then that I realized that this species' "extinction",
of which I had learned in a Massachusetts shell shop fourteen
years previously, was perhaps somewhat exaggerated. What followed
was about two hours of wading and stone-turning along miles
of riverbank. Finally, I reached down into two feet of water,
picked a dark form off the side of a large rock and laid eyes
upon my first live Io fluvialis. I would estimate that there
were about fifteen specimens of this snail on or near that large
rock. I never found a single live Io in any other part of this
river or in any other river that I explored.
I thought it was perhaps unfortunate in
a way that I had essentially discovered my "holy grail"
so early in my freshwater collecting. But I soon discovered
that none of the lure of freshwater was lost. I soon fell into
the pattern that every freshwater collector knows. There was
no body of water too small or too ugly to be explored. I have
taken shells from an irrigation canal in Nepal, from a Chinese
garden pool in Bali, and from a stagnant fountain on the front
lawn of India's Rambaugh Palace. My wife soon learned to keep
a book in the car during drives. In this manner she keeps herself
entertained while I poke around in every stream, pond, and puddle
Many of the shells that I have found have
been small and somewhat plain but others have been exciting
and unexpected: the spiny Theodoxus corona from Thailand, a
striking Thiara species from New Guinea, the smooth, sinistral
Lanistes boltenianus from a roadside ditch in Giza, Egypt.
And there have been other grails. While
stationed in Hawaii, I searched nearly four years for the "common"
endemic Neritina granosa, leaving barely a stream on Oahu unexplored.
Shortly before being transferred, I finally found this snail
(in great abundance) in a large river on the island of Hawaii.
While stationed in Europe, I reinitiated my search (begun over
a decade earlier) for that continent's freshwater nerites, finally
discovering Theodoxus fluviatilis on a dike in northern Holland.
It is for this reason that, to this day,
all my freshwater shells are self-collected. There is no way
to match, through purchase or trade, the excitement of discovery.
But there is concern as well. Although the erroneous label on
the specimens of Io fluvialis that I saw long ago may have been
my first lesson in conservationism, I have since learned others.
A section of Missouri's Bourbeuse River which I found to be
exceedingly rich in mussels just twelve years ago now yields
little more than broken valves. An Oahu streambed filled with
Thiara granifera and Neritina tahitensis in 1984 seemed devoid
of molluscs when I rechecked it just a month ago. Perhaps most
disconcerting was my return to the Tennessee River Valley in
1995. In the same spot I had found over a dozen individuals
of Io fluvialis in 1988, I found only a single immature specimen.
Even the dead Io's were gone.