"If we and the rest of the backboned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the land's ecosystems would collapse."
David Attenborough

Monday, April 4, 2011

Serious Tasmanian Snail-business.

Field Guide Review: Tasmanian Land and Freshwater Molluscs by B.J. Smith and R.C. Kershaw

This is the first of what I intend to be a steady trickle of mollusc book reviews hosted here at MolluscPOW. As a field-focused zoologist I have a particular fondness for identification guides so I think it fitting that I begin with one of the best I have found in Malacology, an oldie but a goldie: Smith and Kershaw’s excellent field guide “Tasmanian Land and Freshwater Molluscs”. 
I acquired this book a couple of years ago from a charming bookshop in Hobart for the quaintly anachronistic price of $5. I spent many a happy day with it snail hunting in the field. My appreciation of this little gem over time has grown steadily with use.
Its brown paper cover, monochrome illustrations and industrial typesetting have in my opinion passed the stage where they look simply dated. They have now taken on an air of retro-chic. It serves to emphasise that with this book you are not getting another style-over-content glossy stocking-filler such as passes for a field guide in many high street bookshops. This book means serious snail-business!
Published in 1981 as part of the University of Tasmania’s excellent “Fauna of Tasmania” series it describes itself as an illustrated checklist of the terrestrial and freshwater snails of the island. I don’t think this really does it justice- it has clear and effective keys and distribution maps. The illustrations by Rhyllis Plant are of a very high standard and are of great assistance when poring over animals in the field. The sections at the beginning of the book describing collecting and preserving techniques, biogeography of the species described. It also sports one of the best introductions to the jargon of snail anatomy and shell description I have yet found. It is simply one of the best simple field guides I have had the pleasure of using.
The information in the guide is distilled from the 1979 “Field Guide to the Non-Marine Molluscs of South-Eastern Australia” by the same authors- I have not come across a copy of this book but if it were of the same standard as the Tasmanian guide it will be very useful.
No doubt dear reader you are thinking that 1981 was a long time ago. Names and taxonomy of groups has changed over the years and no doubt there will be fair slice of the content of this little guide which would need revising to be current but I wouldn’t say this detracts from the utility of the book. For the intended purpose of empowering an amateur to set out in the wilds of Tas and name the snails they luck upon this book is as good today as it ever was. It would be a huge boon for malacology were regional guides of this standard available for other parts of the world- guides sufficiently geographically focused to be portable and dipped into quickly in the field.
Although other title’s in the series have gone out of print over the years, “Tasmanian Land and Freshwater Molluscs” remains in print for the time being. The University of Tasmania has a useful list of stockists on their website. I would strongly recommend this volume anyone with an interest in Tasmanian wildlife, Australian snail fauna or simply the art of producing a good simple field guide. Be warned though, inflation has taken its toll over the years: a new copy today now costs a whole $5.50!
Overall MolluscPOW verdict: 8 Caryodes out of 10.

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