A trip to Russia on a quest for a type of worm that is reported to be widely distributed.
In October 2018, I visited Moscow and St Petersburg in search of a polychaete type. This was possible thanks to an invitation by the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University with my colleague Professor Alexander (Sasha) Tzetlin as my host, to give a talk at a conference on museum collections. My AM colleague Dr Elena Kupriyanova and I gave two presentations on the growth of the Australian Museum marine invertebrate collections, their databasing techniques and the importance of vouchers associated with DNA samples. Both of us also spoke of the value of these collections and how they could be used for ecological studies. I used as an example how we extracted from the database all the species of fish, echinoderms, molluscs, crustaceans and polychaetes which had been collected from Sydney Harbour to show how diverse our harbour is with over 3000 species recorded. We also spoke about the collaboration of the natural history museums in Australia, the collation of museum databases and the Atlas of Living Australia.
However, this conference was just an excuse for a worm treasure hunt. My Holy Grail was the type specimen of Pista bansei Saphronova, 1988. The species was re-described by Dr Igor Jirkov, a well-established Russian polychaete taxonomist and the supervisor of Elena when she was doing her MSc. He provided numerous other records of the species which suggested a really suspiciously wide distribution all around the Arctic and in the North-West Pacific. However, the actual type locality was not listed in the original description and only the registration number of the holotype was given. Of more concern was Jirkov’s suggestion that important characters for this genus show age-related variability, for example, the number of branchiae (gills) increases as the animal grows and the long handled uncini (a type of hard chitinous chaetae) only appear in adults, but are absent in juveniles. This conclusion was based on a large amount of material collected from around the Arctic and North-West Pacific. If true, this would necessitate a complete revamp of the genus and some other closely related genera, a monumental task given the large number of species described.
One might wonder why am I so interested in such a species described from the other side of the globe. Last year Elena and I published a viewpoint in Invertebrate Systematics about the myth of widely distributed polychaetes. We suggested that a species should at least be assumed to have restricted distributions unless otherwise proven. Given the large number of citations this paper gained within just one year of publication, we have to accept that we have really made a point to many polychaete workers as well as people working on other marine groups.
Back to Pista bansei, working with my new French student Nicolas Lavesque from Arcachon and his colleagues, we found a species of Pista from the Mediterranean which superficially resembled P. bansei. Some of my co-authors thought it could be the same species as the one from the Mediterranean, but I said we really need to find out the type locality of P. bansei and check out its characters given that Jirkov provided a composite description based not only on the type, but a raft of specimens collected over a very large geographical range, without giving a precise description of the type. So with this in mind I asked my Russian colleagues to find the type material lodged in the Zoological Museum in Moscow. It turned out that the material had been relocated to Jirkov’s office in the University and now stored in isopropyl alcohol which is cheaper than ethanol and cannot be drunk by people who have access to the collections. Extracting the small vials from empty coffee jars was challenging enough, but reading the labels without the help of Elena and Sasha would have been impossible. Together we were able to tick off specimens against the locations listed by Jirkov in his publication which ranged from Arctic ones, such as Davis Strait in the Labrador Sea, Norwegian Sea, White Sea, and Kara Sea, to North Pacific Bering Sea and even as far south as the Sea of Japan - although most of the material was damaged or simply contained fragments.
So off we went on the overnight train to St Petersburg, the “Northern capital” of Russia and the home of the Zoological Museum of Russian Academy of Sciences, the oldest and largest zoological museum in Russia. We were escorted through the bowels of the museum basement wondering about the bowls of cat food – as it turned out, the cats were officially on the staff in the museum working as mice-catchers! We walked up several floors to find ourselves in the polychaete collection storage area and easily found the relevant jar. In a colleagues’s office I was able to examine the type specimen under a fairly dated microscope. Space was a premium in this crowded office full of specimens, books, sampling gear and who knows what else. It was quite imposing sitting below photos of Professor Uschakov and Dr Fauvel, both very famous polychaete workers, Russian and French, respectively. So I asked Elena whether a camera would be available, she went on a mission and found one down the corridor. It was not easy, as my ability to read the instructions was non-existent, but with the help of Elena we took some photos and ascertained from the specimen label that it came from the Strait of Tartary in the northern Pacific Ocean, not from the Arctic as was previously assumed. This is important because the Arctic Ocean is connected to the East Pacific Ocean (Bering Sea) via a shallow Bering Strait serving as a bathymetric barrier for benthic organisms. As a result of our trip to St. Petersburgh, we now know where the locality of Pista bansei is and we also took some images of the holotype. Thus, we can certainly say that Arctic and Northern European records are dubious at best and another widely-distributed taxon bites the dust. The next step will be to find some fresh material from the type locality to sequence it so that the DNA sequence data can then be compared with data from other species of Pista, including our new one from France which is currently being revised after being reviewed for Zookeys.
Apart from the saga of the worm hunt, I also further appreciated how crucially important well curated and properly databased museum collections are and how much easier they really make our job as taxonomists.
I just hope that as a result of the conference in Moscow our colleagues will be able to obtain funding to better store and to database the collections, throughout Russia as well as in other places in Eastern Europe. Apparently our talks are already up on a Russian website explaining the value of collections (but have to admit I cannot vouch for this!).
I also experienced Georgian food and can thoroughly recommend it and their red wine, but don’t talk to me about obtaining a Russian visa!!! But I do recommend a visit to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, not just for the wonderful paintings but the spectacular and ornate building, and also kept free of mice by those essential mouse catchers.
So searching for worm types has lots of bonuses and I hope to continue doing this for years to come.
Pat Hutchings, Senior Fellow, Australian Museum
- Hutchings, P.A. & Kupriyanova, E., 2018. Cosmopolitan species, fact or fashion? A personal perspective. Invertebrate Systematics 32: 1–9.
- Safronova, M.A., 1988. On cosmopolitan distribution of Pista cristata (Polychaeta, Terebellidae). Zoological Journal 67(6): 888-897.