Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Nicobar Spindle

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

The Spindle shells are lovely examples of marine snails that have very tall spires and extended apertures. This gives them a shape reminiscent of a spindle from a spinning wheel.

I came across these specimens when researching a geographic conundrum, which I will discuss shortly. These are of the species Marmarofusus nicobaricus (Röding, 1798), the Nicobar Spindle. This lot of three was given to the Delaware Museum of Natural History by John Dyas Parker in 1979, but it is unknown from whom he obtained them.

The Nicobar Islands are a small archipelago in the eastern Indian Ocean, about 170 km northwest of the tip of Sumatra Island. This is where this species was first collected, but it is known from around the Indian Ocean and a little beyond.

I have been producing correlation and translation tables between the geographic entity lists that are included in the new database, called Specify, that the museum has recently begun to use. Among the "country" names in our existing database I found the name Hirama Island. Google and other search engines are ignorant of such a place, so I went looking for the specimen. Let's take a closer look at the original label:

The lovely handwriting indicates that the original collector was educated before 1940, and most likely before 1900. Today, nobody writes like this except calligraphers, a nearly dying breed! The collector knew this as Fusus nicobaricus, and I interpret the second line, Chemitz, as referring to an author, who would have been Johann Hieronymus Chemnitz.

J.H. Chemnitz described a great many new species in the 8 volumes he contributed to the monumental late-18th-Century work Neues systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet, or New Systematic Cabinet of Conches, to which he contributed until 1795. However, the description of this species is attributed to Röding in 1798. Apparently, this was not known to whoever wrote this label.

The number 3480 on the label is J.D. Parker's catalog number, and written by him. But the line of greatest interest to me for the present investigation is the third. I can see how an the person who cataloged this thought it said "Hirama Island", but the abbreviation "Is" means "Islands", or an archipelago; the abbreviation for "Island" is "Id". And the first word is much more likely Itirama. Except…Neither Itirama or Hirama exists in any gazetteer that I have located!

 For the present, this is the "official" label for this lot, until we get a new label printed with the current designation. During a reorganization of the family Fasciolariidae in the 1970's, many species in the genus Fusus were reclassified to the genus Fusinis. "Fusus" is from fusum, meaning "spindle" in Latin. "Fusinis" is the same word in a different grammatical case.

Quite recently, the Nicobar Spindle, owing mostly to its markings, was reclassified again, into the new genus Marmarofusus, meaning "mottled spindle". However, as I looked through the entire cabinet, containing specimens of the genera Fusus and Fusinis, I could see that the mottling on this species is not unique in this family, though it seems to be strongest and most definite in this species. I anticipate a certain possibility that the species nicobaricus might be returned to either Fusus or Fusinis by a future systematist.

The islands in and around the Indian Ocean are typically remote. Thus this spindle shell is seldom collected. This tray contains all of the 26 lots of this species in the DMNH collection (The existing database lists 25 of these; when we get to this family in the slow, ongoing inventory, we'll catalog the 26th lot).

This lot, #174594, is at left center in this photo. I am fascinated that the coloration of these is so variable. Two shells are nearly unmarked, and a few have more "fidgety" markings than the ones I have so far focused upon.

Perhaps I'll return to this tray to see if coloration correlates with location. These are mostly from the eastern Indian Ocean and far western Pacific, from New Caledonia to the Philippines and Japan, but a few are from farther west. Some were also collected from the eastern Pacific, presumably as invasive or transplanted species.

That's what is fun about a museum. There is no end of interesting things to take up one's time! Meantime, I'll just have to include a note in the new database that the Itirama Islands have yet to be located, though it is probably safe to use Asia as the relevant continent.

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