A Q&;A with Technical Officer Michael Shea, co-winner of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales' Whitley Medal, the most sought after prize in Australian zoological publishing.

Shea is one of four authors of 'Australian Land Snails Volume 1', the Medal-winning publication. It is, according to Dr Frank Kohler, the result of "a wonderful journey of discovery of the endless variety of shapes and colours, as well as the incredible diversity of species". Dr Winston Ponder has described it as "a superb compilation that goes a long way towards filling the knowledge gap for these important animals".

Q: Why did you write this book?

Shea: Dr John Stanisic [Queensland Museum], Darryl Potter [Queensland Museum], Owen Griffiths [Bioculture Pty Ltd, Mauritius] and myself wrote the book because no substantial work had been written for the identification of Australian Land Snails for a long time. There was a need for an up to date and comprehensive work that covered a substantial part of the enormous land snail fauna we have in eastern Australia, currently estimated to number well over 1,500 species (we covered 794 species for the book).

The book had to cater to the needs of professionals, consultants, students and amateur naturalists in its format – it was something of a challenge to tie those separate perspectives into a single volume.

Q: What are some of the more interesting features of this publication?

Shea: Many features make this a ground-breaking work in Australian Malacology and in Australian Natural History literature – notably the breadth of species coverage and numbers of high quality images of both shells and living snails illustrated – particularly the Photomontage images of very small charopid snails which show for the first time in an Australian publication the intricate sculptural detail of these very photogenic but poorly known species.

The succinct descriptive treatment of each taxon is a credit to the years of experience gained from studying land snails by John Stanisic – this takes a lot of skill – particularly in putting into as few words as possible the features that separate one species from another – the characters that make each species unique. The great majority of species covered in our book are virtually unknown to most people – our work introduces these cryptic animals for the first time through a field guide accessible to everyone.

Q: How did it feel to win a Whitley Award?

Shea: It was a feeling of a great sense of pride and achievement that we received the award for the amount of time and effort that went into the publication – we feel that it has been all worthwhile. Credit must be given to John Stanisic for having the foresight to enter our work for the Whitley Awards little knowing that we would actually win the Whitley Medal for ‘The Best Book on the Natural History of Australian Animals’ for 2011.

Q: And what does winning the Award mean?

Shea: Winning the Whitley Award will help give long overdue recognition to the study of terrestrial molluscs in this country and gives support to further study for this little known group of molluscs. It is a great confidence booster – invertebrates as everyone knows are often overlooked and their importance understated or downplayed – this award goes a long way to alleviating that commonly held misconception.

Q: So what was involved in putting the book together?

Shea: Because we were covering this subject in such a way for the first time, a lot of research was involved in putting together a foundation list of species. We included most described species but also added many previously undescribed species.

The extensive collections of both the Queensland Museum and Australian Museum were drawn upon as well as scientific literature to facilitate species descriptions and images. Descriptions had to be succinct (because of space) yet adequate to delineate the difference between one species and another while at the same time defining the unique characters of each taxon.

My part as chief researcher was to make the initial selection of species to be included; write the first draft of species, genus and family descriptions; select the specimens for photography; do the line drawings and write up sections of the introductory chapter – principally the historical narrative, identification, habitats, collecting methods and the pictorial family guide.

Dr John Stanisic as scientific consultant oversaw the whole project and made the final determination of species included, he also edited my original draft and introduced most new taxon names. He was responsible for most of the written sections on Charopidae, Punctidae and Camaenidae and sections not covered by me in the introductory chapter. John also arranged loans of specimens for photography and liaised with the layout team/copy editor.

Darryl Potter as technical consultant, introduced species common names for the first time, made the original species distribution maps, designed the family identification key, proof read text, prepared the index and provided general comments on layout and design.

Owen Griffiths provided the financial support for the project and publishing, printing and distribution requirements through his company, he also liaised with scientific editor (Dai Herbert) and copy editor (Liz Weaver) in South Africa and Mauritius respectively – the project was essentially Owens’ idea although John had wanted to write such a work for many years – and now was his opportunity.

Of course many other people were involved along the way, particularly Peter Middelfart and Lisa Kirkendale for the original layout and design of the plates and pages; Vince Railton for images photographed at the Queensland Museum and executed on the shoestring budget available to him; Des Beechey for images photographed at the Australian Museum; Marlene Vial for Photoshop editing of the shell images and species distribution maps and of course the collection management staff at both the Australian Museum – notably Ian Loch, Alison Miller and Janet Waterhouse and Queensland Museum. Special mention should also be made of Dr Winston Ponder (Honorary Research Fellow, Australian Museum) for his continued support and encouragement for the duration of the project.

There were also many other people who contributed images and suggestions – too many to mention here. Lastly, work on our publication could not have gone ahead without the permission to use facilities from both the Queensland Museum and Australian Museum management teams.

Q: What are you working on now?

Shea: We hope to start work on the second volume of Australian Land Snails very shortly. This will cover species found in the rest of Australia – that is Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern Territory and the island territories of Christmas Island, Cocos Keeling Island, Macquarie Island and Heard Island. We are just waiting on approval to start from AM management.