Two snails
Freshwater snails Sermyla venustula (left), and Gabbia clathrata (right), Australian native species. Image: Anders Hallan/Emilio Rodriguez
© Australian Museum

Australia is home to more than 450 species of freshwater mollusc. These include a wide range of coiled, clammed, conical, compressed, cave-dwelling, creek-lodging, common and cloistered critters of all sizes and habits. Some of them are rare as can be, some have been driven to extinction, and some have invaded from overseas and proliferate at great cost to biodiversity, the economy, and sometimes the health of humans and our livestock. Our new project will enable everyone to tell apart the species that cling to existence from those expanding their range at the detriment of so many others.

How does one identify a mollusc? Well, in the past, if you’re an expert with a research library at close proximity, you might find the species you were trying to identify by meticulously searching the arcane literature. Popular field guides to freshwater molluscs do exist, but they are very few and far between, quite old, and contain relatively few species.

Given the precarious conservation status of some native molluscs and the invading status of others, it’s vital that everyone gets the opportunity to quickly and reliably identify a species. This is something that existing resources simply don’t facilitate. The good news is, whether you are a quarantine worker screening for pests, a landowner who wants to know whether the snails in your billabong are facing extinction or causing it, or whether you just simply want to know for the sake of knowing – soon you can.

Invasive snail
‘Physa’ acuta, an invasive snail species in Australia. Image: Anders Hallan/Ashley Miskelly
© Australian Museum

At the Australian Museum Research Institute, we are currently working on a project that will deliver an interactive online tool to help you identify freshwater molluscs from across Australia, in fact every freshwater mollusc and from every State and Territory. By looking at the snail or mussel you want to identify, whether you picked it up in Penrith or the Pilbara, you can choose from several characters available in the interactive tool - that would be coiled, clammed, conical, compressed, and so on – to gradually narrow down your search until you have a single species that matches the one you just picked up. You will then see an image accompanied by a description of its key characteristics as well as its distribution.

We also want people who might find themselves offline, and many of the species do indeed inhabit parts of the continent where chances of a wi-fi signal are as remote as the location itself, to be able to identify what they encounter. We are therefore also working on a book that will contain not only information on all the families of freshwater molluscs in Australia, with their key species and distributions, but also information on how to find them, where to find them, and what to bring along to make the job a little easier.

We hope that these initiatives, to be finalised later in 2015, will considerably improve the prospects of reliably and accurately identifying the wealth of molluscs both native and alien to our freshwater environments. In the meantime, why not try to identify the three snails photographed above and to the right? One is invasive, and two are natives – I am sure you can do it, but it might take a while (at least it often takes me a while!).

Then again, perhaps you’d rather wait a few months and revisit this blog when you have the key at hand?

Dr Anders Hallan
Scientific Officer, AMRI

This project, now nearing completion, is a culmination of more than a decade of efforts by several contributors. It was initiated by Winston Ponder, Stephanie Clark and Michael Shea, who have since been joined by AMRI malacologists Don Colgan, Mandy Reid, Alison Miller, Janet Waterhouse and myself. The Museum's Greg McDonald is our liaison with Streamwatch, who will be involved with trials of the interactive key.

The project has been made possible thanks to the support of the Australian Museum Foundation and the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS).