Posted by: theoriginalmiss | September 2, 2015

When Less Isn’t More – an exhibition and social media project

Biological diversity is messy. It walks, it crawls, it swims, it swoops, it buzzes. But extinction is silent, and it has no voice other than our own. Paul Hawken

For a few months now, I have been working on an exhibition and social media project that explores issues of biodiversity loss, extinction and conservation.

In March and April this year, scientists at the Australian Museum kindly opened their doors and allowed me access to photograph threatened and endangered native species, mostly lesser known invertebrates from their collections, and ask them endless questions about their research.

In the malacology collection at the Museum, I met Dr Mandy Reid, the Collection Manager, and Dr Frank Koehler, a Senior Research Scientist, who helped me to take photographs of some little Australian critters that are threatened with extinction. I was astounded as they took me into the collections’ vaults, revealing rows and rows of specimen jars, many containing species as yet undescribed.

I’m talking land snails here. These are species that lie on the other side of the coin when it comes to charismatic mega fauna: some are very small and seemingly insignificant. While some are beautifully patterned, there is an awful lot of brown among the land snails, which helps them with camouflage in their natural environments. Invertebrates aren’t to everyone’s liking for sure, and indeed they are often much neglected components of our ecosystems that we fail to recognise.

So I’m interested in what it is about such creatures that makes people like the scientists I spent time with devote their entire lifetimes to researching and conserving them?

I asked Drs Reid and Koehler about snails and why they view them as important. They explained that like all species they are vital parts of their ecosystems. As part of our cultural heritage and responsibility, we have an obligation to learn about them and share this information. Unlike many species, snails are like canaries in the system – it’s well known that canaries were used in early coal mines to detect carbon monoxide so miners could avoid poisoning. This means that snails are good indicator species of, for example, metals and other pollutants in the environment and can be used to monitor land degradation and other environmental changes. In spite of their importance, however, Australia has only a few malacologists working in the field, leaving plenty of work still for curious scientists.

Furthermore, Dr Koehler informed me that many land snails are narrowly endemic – that as a result of many factors, including historical environmental events, their home ranges are restricted to certain places and particular habitats. Snails, for obvious reasons, can’t move fast or far. One of the snails I photographed (my image shown here), Thersites mitchellae – Mitchell’s rainforest snail from north eastern NSW, has already lost much of its coastal habitat to land clearing for development, with the small remnant areas of habitat still at risk of further urban expansion.

High Rise Reverbation ©Paula Broom

Mitchell’s rainforest snail is a lucky one however: it has a threatened species recovery plan in place which at least gives it half a chance of survival. Meridolum corneovirens, only listed as endangered thanks to the hard work of scientists at the Australian Museum, is found on the Cumberland Plain of NSW and has suffered severe habitat reduction due to urban spread. In fact its situation is so bad that it faces extinction if the stresses upon its population don’t cease immediately. There is however no recovery plan in place and more research and action is desperately needed to save this particular mollusc.

Sadly, these aren’t the only land snails under the threat of extinction, and indeed many invertebrates are disappearing almost unnoticed from our landscapes under the many pressures they face. It is estimated that about one tenth of all known species of land snails have already disappeared. Land clearing and urban development are some of the more obvious drivers of habitat loss and thus extinction, but the threats upon land snails are many: predation by introduced species, weeds, pesticides, herbicides, grazing to name a few. They are also susceptible to climatic changes so there are further risks, the effects of which, of course, at present we know little about.

So whilst I didn’t directly ask them why they devote their lives to such research, I have an inclination that the answer lies in having a thorough understanding of ecology and ecosystems, a realisation that everything has its place in the grand scheme of things, that everything is important in the overall equation…and that, in the end, looks aren’t everything.

Dr Koehler at the Microscope

 

Drs Reid & Koehler

 

 

My thanks to Dr Dave Britton, Head of Natural Sciences and Biodiversity Conservation, Entomology Collection, for setting up this meeting and, of course, to Drs Reid and Koehler for their time and for sharing information so freely and good-naturedly with me.

The exhibition When Less Isn’t More features many of the images I took of the endangered invertebrates and frogs at the Australian Museum and opens on Thursday 3rd September from 6-8pm at GKJE Gallery 1, next to the reception in the Mercure Potts Point, Sydney, as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival 2015.  It runs from 1st to 28th September, entry is free from 8am until 8pm, 7 days a week.

 The online component of the project is mostly happening over at  grryo.com where they have an article I wrote for them about the project.  They are also running a backyard macro photography competition (which I will be guest judging) on their Instagram profile @wearegrryo. Check it out and join in.  

 

 

 

 

See also:

*Koehler, F, On the Diversity of Snails Down Under, Molluscan Musings, 1 July 2013. online at: http://molluscanmusings.blogspot.com.au/2013_07_01_archive.html (accessed 10 June 2015)
*Parkyn J and Newell D A, Australian land snails: a review of ecological research and conservation approaches, Molluscan Research, 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13235818.2013.782793 (accessed 10 June 2015)
*Pearce F, Snail’s demise suggests sixth mass extinction is under way. The New Scientist, 08 June 2015. Available online at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27683-snails-demise-suggests-sixth-mass-extinction-is-under-way.html#.VXjyxmBUTEZ (accessed 11 June 2015)

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