In 2012, when we embarked on an expedition to East Timor, the one thing we knew for sure was how little was known about the biodiversity of the country. This lack of knowledge has been a significant impediment for biodiversity conservation as we cannot protect what we don’t know.
As one of the first tangible outcomes of the Australian Museum’s activities in East Timor, we have unearthed a previously unrecognized radiation of land snails, just published in the scientific journal Contributions to Zoology.
By studying land snails samples from all over East Timor, we found that one of the most commonly found land snail groups in the country was not represented by three species as previously assumed, but nineteen!
Many of these species were not recognized previously because of their similar shells. However, our examinations of their genital anatomy and molecular genetics unravelled several cryptic species – 15 of which have been newly described in our publication.
Our land snail study has general implications for biodiversity research and conservation. Firstly, in East Timor we can expect to discover many new species in other animal groups that are equally understudied.
Secondly, the snails are not evenly distributed across the country but were found to be particularly diverse and highly endemic (that is, they occur nowhere else) in the central mountains of the island. We climbed some of the highest peaks in search for snails, such as Mt. Ramelau – with 3,000 m the highest mountain of Timor.
We were rewarded for our efforts by discovering new, narrowly endemic species on each peak we climbed. The central mountains of East Timor have already been considered as a significant area for biodiversity conservation; this is now confirmed for land snails.
Our land snail study marks a further step on the long way towards a complete documentation of the flora and fauna of East Timor as a prerequisite for improved conservation and sustainable development.
Köhler, F., Kessner, V. 2014. Mitochondrial and morphological differentiation in a previously unrecognized radiation of land snails on Timor (Gastropoda, Camaenidae, Parachloritis Ehrmann, 1912). Contributions to Zoology, 83: 1-40.