MSA Turns 60

December 2016 marks 60 years since the first meeting of the Malacological Society of Australasia. In honour of our birthday, we’ll be posting a new fact each week to showcase discoveries, events, and people that have shaped malacology over the years.

We’re asking all members to dig into their archives and memory banks and send ideas and photos to

To see the fun facts each week, like us on Facebook or follow @MalSocAus on Twitter. Postings will also be made here periodically.

In this post we would like to highlight the work of New Zealand’s preeminent malacologist Dr Bruce Marshall. Bruce is the Collection Manager of Molluscs at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and is the leading authority on the taxonomy and systematics of living molluscs in New Zealand. Since 1967 he has published more than 140 scientific papers on living and fossil molluscs, from both terrestrial and marine environments.

As collection manager of molluscs, Bruce is responsible for a vast collection of several million specimens representing more than 4,700 New Zealand species. It is estimated that nearly 2000 species of New Zealand mollusc remain undescribed. Bruce has done more than any other to reduce that number, describing and naming 584 species and genera to date.

In recognition of his work 24 species and 6 genera have been named after him, and in 2012 Bruce was awarded a Doctor of Science degree by Victoria University of Wellington for his exceptionally significant contribution to New Zealand molluscan taxonomy and systematics.

left) A 19-year old Bruce Marshall collecting fossil molluscs from the classic roadside fossil locality at Te Piki and (right) Dr Bruce Marshall with the museum's mollusc collection

In 2000, Dr Kirsten Benkendorff was honoured as the Young Australian of the Year in Science and Technology, making her the first (and so far only) malacologist to win this prestigious award. The award was based on research conducted during her PhD at the University of Wollongong, ‘Bioactive molluscan resources and their conservation: Chemical and biological studies on the egg masses of marine molluscs’. Using her combined expertise in chemistry and biology, Kirsten discovered more than triple the number of mollusc species previously recorded in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. Importantly, she also discovered a powerful and novel antibiotic in the eggs of some sea snails, including the dog whelk Dicathais orbita, research which is still continuing through her former students . Kirsten is now based at Southern Cross University where she continues to bridge biology and chemistry, focussing on the resource potential of molluscs as bioindicators, food, pharmaceuticals, and even art!

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff (right) with colleagues Dr Barbara Sanderson and student Lawrence Er with Dicathais orbita

Dr Barry Wilson was born in coastal southwestern WA where he spent much of his childhood exploring the seashore and laying the foundation for his lifelong enthusiasm for marine molluscs. He received his PhD from UWA and undertook a postdoc at Harvard on molluscan systematics. During his career, he held a number of posts, including Curator of Molluscs at the Western Australian Museum. One of Barry’s key achievements is his impressive 2-volume work Australian Marine Shells in which he combines comprehensive details of the taxonomy and biology of Australian gastropods with stunning photographs and illustrations. Most malacologists and shell-collectors in the region will have their own well-thumbed copies of these books. His earlier work (e.g. Wilson and Gillett 1987) was just as pivotal and influenced a generation of molluscan biologists in Australia. His ability to weave taxonomy with biogeography to arrive at useful marine conservation guidelines was invaluable. Barry was one of the longest-standing members of the MSA, with records showing his membership dates from at least 1957 – over 60 years of involvement!

Barry Wilson with his seminal volume

Chromodoris is a genus of nudibranch found in both shallow and mesophotic reefs in the Indo-Pacific. At one time this genus was the most diverse of all nudibranchs, with close to 300 species, but molecular work showed that Chromodoris was polyphyletic and in need of revision. Chromodoris now contains 22 described species that all have black pigmentation and lay flat egg masses (the only genus with flat egg masses in the ent…ire chromodorid family!). They’re a favourite of divers because of their bright and beautiful colours and because they’re often found feeding on equally beautiful sponges. These nudibranchs sequester toxins from sponges and store them in mantle glands along their body to use as a form of chemical defense against predators. Dr. Karen Cheney and her team at the University of Queensland are looking at chemical diversity in these nudibranchs and its implications for mimicry. In addition to this work, researchers from UWA, the WA Museum and California Academy of Sciences have found that some Chromodoris species mimic co-occurring congenerics on a regional scale. Vinicius Padula and colleagues at the SNSB-Bavarian State Collection of Zoology recently discovered a similar case of mimicry in two other chromodorid nudibranchs, Felimida clenchi and F. binza, which show different colour patterns across their range that are similar to the colour patterns of regional congenerics. This also means that although colour patterns have often been used to identify different species of chromodorid nudibranch, this character may in fact be unreliable.

Chromodoris magnifica from the Muiron Islands in northwestern Australia (Layton 2016)

Giant clams (Tridacninae) are the heaviest living bivalves on the planet and when you are lucky enough to see them alive on the reef, the larger-bodied species resemble enormous underwater flowers with beautiful mantle coloration of variegated shades of blue, green and brown. The mantle especially is home to a wide diversity of photosymbionts (tiny algae) in the genus Symbiodinium that contribute to giant clam nutrition, similar to the partnership in corals. Tridacninae are not a particularly diverse cardiid subfamily (less than 15 species in two genera, Tridacna and Hippopus) but compared to most other molluscs they are very well studied, given utility in aquaculture, importance as subsidence food source in many island nations and high conservation value given illegal harvesting of many species (all species are CITES red-listed). However, even though our knowledge of giant clams is substantial, there are still surprises! Recent molecular work on the group in Australia, published in 2013, highlighted the occurrence of a new lineage, research led by Cynthia Riginos and her team at UQ. The lineage was then formally described by Penny & Willan in 2014 as Tridacna ningaloo (a name presently considered a junior synonym of T. noae). This species, almost morphologically indistinguishable from T. maxima (the elongate giant clam), is actually more closely related to T. squamosa (the fluted giant clam) and T. crocea (the boring giant clam).

Tridacna sp at Rowley Shoals 2014. Photo by L Kirkendale

Museum collections are vital to help document biodiversity, but they can also provide answers to future questions that weren’t even imagined when they were collected!

During the World Malacological Congress in Perth in 2004, Peter Beninger accessed a specimen of the scallop Hemipecten forbesianus to confirm that it had homorhabdic gills (all gill filaments are tubular structures called ordinary filaments). Instead, he found heterohabdic gills (gill filaments alternate between ordinary and larger U-shaped principal filaments). The result was that he was able to establish that gill type can be used as a soft-tissue taxonomic character of the Pectinidae. Prior to this, only Hemipecten stood in the way! This is a great example of how permanent collections help malacologists continue to test hypotheses and understand molluscan biology and taxonomy.

stained gill filaments from Hemipecten forbesianus. From Beninger and Decottignies 2008

Who doesn’t love marvelling at the diversity of forms, colors, feeding modes and behavioural attributes of molluscs? The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the international legal instrument for “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources” that has been ratified by 196 nations, including Australia. The theme this year is Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism, chosen to raise awareness of the important contribution of sustainable tourism both to economic growth and to the conservation of biodiversity. Understanding our regional molluscan diversity and distribution, through ongoing work in taxonomy, ecology and evolution is critical to ensuring that we know what we have and where we have it- the fundamental first step in developing appropriate conservation measures. MSA is at the heart of this initiative in Australasia with members dedicated to the appreciation, study, and sustainable use of molluscs. Our societal code of ethics on conservation and endangered species is posted on our website and offers clear guidelines on appropriate collecting.

Abalone shell

Anyone who has been for a stroll along the beach has most likely been struck by the natural beauty of sea shells. The shapes, patterns and colours of shells are ultimately controlled by macromolecules secreted by an underlying organ called the mantle. Bernie Degnan and colleagues at the University of Queensland are investigating which genes are involved in this process and whether they are conserved between molluscan species. Surprisingly, they have found very little similarity in the shell-building gene sets across the species investigated – instead, it appears that each species uses a different combination of ‘ancient’ genes (genes that originated even before the origin of molluscs), and genes that have evolved more recently. Although this makes it hard for researchers to piece together a general picture of how molluscs build their shells, it is most likely one of the reasons for the beautiful diversity of shells produced by these animals.

Abalone shell

In 2010, a group of Australian malacologists published the first book in over 140 years to document native Australian snails. Featuring almost 600 pages of colour images, descriptions, distribution maps, and notes on habitat and ecology, the book includes 794 species in 44 families along the eastern coast of Australia, including over 300 species described for the first time. Australian Land Snails Volume 1 is the most comprehensive guide to our amazing diversity of land snails and has become a valuable resource to professional malacologists and amateur naturalists and everyone in between.

Cover of Australian Land Snails, Vol 1

How can such a little creature cause so much drama! In March 1999, aggregations of a small mussel were found throughout the Cullen Bay Marina in Darwin. These mussels were identified as Mytilopsis sallei, a highly invasive mollusc. Although they are little (maximum 2.5cm), they are reproductively mature within four weeks and are highly fecund. Many tons of sodium hypochlorite and copper sulphate, $2.2 million, and two months later, Cullen Bay Marina was declared free of M. sallei, becoming the world’s first example of the successful eradication of an established marine pest population.

An article describing the discovery of this pest was published in 2000 (Willan et al. 2000), and is currently the highest cited paper ever published in Molluscan Research.

 Mytilopsis sallei (credit: NSW DPI/Northern Territory Government)

Charles (Carl) Francis Laseron was born in America in 1887, before migrating to Australia in 1891. Coming from a modest background he was unable to afford university fees, but obtained a diploma in geology from Sydney Technical College, later working as a lecturer and collector with wide interests including geology, palaeontology and eucalypts. In 1911, Laseron joined the Australian Antarctic Expedition under Sir Douglas Mawson, acting as a general scientific assistant and undertaking two major sledging journeys (below right, with Percy Correll). During WWI he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces, and was wounded in the leg by sniper fire on the second day of the Gallipoli landings. He recovered from the injury but was discharged.

After the war, Laseron managed the art collections at the Sydney Technical Museum until resigning due to a dispute with the museum curator. He then pursued a number of interests, including establishing an antiques business and acting as clerk for the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company. During this time his interest in natural history turned to molluscs. He published 6 works on Australian malacology (including revisions of NSW Leptonidae and Triphoridae), completed 20 essays, produced over 2000 drawings and described hundreds of new species. He became an honorary correspondent of the Australian Museum and a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales in 1952.

 Laseron (right) with Percy Correll during the Antarctic expedition (credit: Wikipedia, original image Frank Hurley)

Molluscan taxonomy is in a continual state of flux, and our understanding of species occurrences grows daily. Because of this, regional field guides and species lists can rapidly become outdated. To address this problem, Dr Simon Grove, curator of molluscs at the Tasmanian Museum, used his extensive database of mollusc records around Tasmania to develop A Guide to the Seashells and Other Marine Molluscs of Tasmania in 2006.

With over 1750 species, this valuable online resource provides information on taxonomy and distribution, as well as spectacular specimen images, many of them taken by Port Arthur-based dredging enthusiast Rob de Little. As with many of its kin (e.g. Sea Slug Forum, Seashells of NSW), future support and maintenance is a concern because they are run by enthusiastic malacologists in their spare time. Any offers of help with overhauling the web-site onto a more modern, lower-maintenance platform will be gratefully received by emailing Simon at simon.grove @

Some of the specimen images from

What impact will climate change have on our oceans and biodiversity? This is a massive question, however some clues can be found by studying what has happened in the past. The study of deep-sea and Antarctic octopods by Jan Strugnell and colleagues has provided valuable insights into historic speciation events associated with major environmental changes. Genetic analyses indicate that deep-sea octopods diverged from other southern-ocean species at a time of significant climactic change in the region. The climactic changes likely initiated new currents that helped Southern ocean species to move into the deep-sea. Octopus genetic signatures are also consistent with a more recent collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the Pleistocene, which likely enabled dispersal through the resulting trans-Antarctic seaway. It is expected that other animals were similarly impacted by changing currents and passages. These studies show that major environmental change can have major impacts on species and biodiversity.

Dr Jan Strugnell and her research subjects

We’re all sadly becoming increasingly familiar with the effects of climate change on our marine environment. In addition to the effects of warming, ocean acidification may stunt growth, increase abnormalities, and thin or even dissolve the shells of molluscs. Research led by Sue-Ann Watson, however, suggests that it may not be all doom and gloom for giant clams. They exposed juvenile fluted giant clams (Tridacna squasoma) to various combinations of CO2 and light levels. With moderate light, the clams suffered mortality and reduced growth in CO2 conditions predicted for the end of this century. In contrast, under high-light levels, all clams survived elevated CO2 exposure (although there were still some reduction in growth). Giant clams are some of the few solar-powered molluscs that contain photosynthetic symbionts (aeolid sea slugs are another)…. it may be that in intense light the increased energy provided by these symbionts ameliorates negative effects from ocean acidification!

Giant clam

The first issue of The Journal of the Malacological Society of Australia was published in September 1957, a year after the inaugural meeting of the newly-formed society. The first volume includes a letter penned by one of the society’s patrons, R. Tucker Abbott, in which he celebrates Australia’s richness of fauna, its malacological ‘coming-of-age’, and the strength of the international collaborations of the time. Also of note is that one of the original journal committee members, Mr R. Burn, is still an MSA member to this day!

In 1993 the name of the journal was changed to Molluscan Research, representing a broadening in focus of both the society (now the Malacological Society of Australasia) and its scientific publication. We hope that Abbott would be proud of what the society and the journal have become.

Cover of the first issue of The Journal of the Malacological Society of Australia


In honour of Taxonomist Appreciation Day, we want to say thank you to all the hard-working molluscan taxonomists in Australasia who increase our understanding of molluscan biology, evolution and biogeography, as well providing a foundation for molluscan biochemistry, ecology, and genetics!

In this post, we highlight research on the smallest and arguably the most challenging of molluscs in Australasia by celebrating the work of Winston Frank Ponder. Born in New Zealand, Winston spend time at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, and in 1968 he became Curator of Molluscs at the Australian Museum in 1968 . He has been studying molluscs, with a focus on anatomy (e.g. Galeommatoidea for part of his B.Sc., Rissoidae for M.Sc. and neogastropods for his Ph.D.) since 1963, a highly productive 54 years!

Beyond his marine work on small white specks of dust (Galeos) and small white coils of dust (Rissos), Winston has also worked extensively on freshwater fauna of Australia, specifically the Hydrobiidae. He has produced a staggering number of scientific papers on this topic (almost 50). He has also focussed on other speciose small-bodied freshwater gastropod families, including Bithyniidae and Glacidorbidae, and has studies currently underway on Viviparidae and Planorbidae. He initiated and drove the newly released and highly valuable freshwater mollusc identification resource The snails and bivalves of Australian inland waters. Winston has inspired many students in the study of small things (e.g. Peter Middelfart (Galeos) and Rosemary Goulding (Stenothyridae, Iravadiidae and Calopiidae)).

Beyond the micromolluscs, he has been an incredible force for Australian biodiversity and conservation of true invertebrates and has contributed years of service to MSA as President and Journal Editor of Molluscan Research, as well as leading many courses, workshops, and reviewers panels. He has just about finished a monumental effort on molluscan phylogeny soon to be released, which we all look forward to devouring.

Dr Winston Ponder in various malacological pursuits


MSA founding member J. Hope Black (nee Macpherson), together with the late Charles Gabriel, published the book “Marine Molluscs of Victoria” in 1962. This was a comprehensive systematic list of all of the Victorian mollusca as known at that time, with expanded notes and superb line illustrations of many of the more common (and also some of the rarer) species. It remains a highly valuable reference work.

Sample photographs of the book Marine Molluscs of Victoria


In celebration of International Women’s Day we share with you the story of Joyce Allan (1896-1966). Joyce became a professional and well-respected malacologist at a time when such endeavours were almost exclusively a male pursuit. Her association with the Australian Museum began while she was a school student, where she frequently sorted shells for Charles Hedley. She was employed as a temporary employee in 1917, and was made permanent in 1920. Following Hedley’s resignation in 1924, Allan was made responsible for the Australian Museum’s conchology section with Iredale as her assistant, however in 1925, Allan and Iredale’s positions were reversed (!). She was a talented artist and an excellent science communicator and as the only female conchologist in Australia at the time, she garnered quite a lot of press and was quite popular; as described by The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1939 ‘…she has the gift of explaining scientific subjects in a thoroughly lucid manner’. Her numerous publications focussed on opisthobranchs. Her book Australian Shells released in 1950 was notable as it represented the first book to attempt to document Australian molluscs. It remains a useful reference for collectors and professional malacologists today. Joyce eventually succeeded Tom Iredale as the head of the Conchology Department of the Australian Museum (however only following his retirement), and was able to retain her position following marriage, despite this being against the public service rules of the time.
To find out more, please see the Australian Museum’s webpage.

Images © Australian Museum


Did you know that the word ‘purple’ originated from the Greek term ‘porphyra’, which referred to a mollusc that yielded a purple dye? The compound ‘Tyrian purple’ from muricid molluscs was the first ever marine natural product to be structurally elucidated (in 1905). Thanks to the work of several Australian scientists (including Professor Joe Baker and the MSA’s own Dr. Kirsten Benkendorff), we now have an excellent understanding of the chemistry of this fascinating compound. Tyrian purple is produced and stored in the hypobranchial gland of species such as Dicathais orbita (pictured), and precursors of this molecule found in egg masses have been found to have antibacterial and potentially anticancer properties.

Dicathais orbita (top left) and its egg mass (top right) with extracted products (bottom)


With the exception of war periods, the Malacological Society of South Australia (MSSA) has been active continuously since 1894. In 1994 the MSSA celebrated its centenary with a huge public display of specimens at the very appropriate South Australian Museum site. Later, this same format was used to host the first National Shell Show. Again the MSSA hosted the event in South Australia. Many national and international delegates attended. SA museum staff, along with current membership put on a great event, so now these shows too have become a tradition on the Australian malacology calendar.

collage of 1994 centenary shell show, courtesy of Peter Hunt


Launched in 1998, the Australian Museum’s online Sea Slug Forum, authored by Dr. Bill Rudman, was a fantastic vehicle for the exchange of ideas, images and knowledge about sea slugs. Bringing science, interactively, to a vast audience, the Forum was prolific, with a total of 14,523 messages posted during its active life. Due to costs associated with managing online security, the site ceased to be updated in 2010, however as a static site even today it remains a highly important resource for many users. For many, the beauty of the site is its usefulness in bringing sometimes complex taxonomic and morphological data into the amateur realm, using clear and often beautiful imagery, at no cost, in easy to understand terms. The site itself is capacious and yet remains easily navigated and the content, although more than 15 years old in some cases, remains useful and highly accessible. Whilst some messages are seemingly pedestrian, others contain hitherto unknown facts, and perhaps better still, important discoveries.

Home page of the Sea Slug Forum


The first issue of The Victorian Branch Bulletin of the Malacological Society of Australasia appeared on 19th August 1968. The Bulletin continues to the present time and is available on the MSA website.

First page of the first issue of the MSA Victorian Branch Bulletin in 1968

Imagine if simply touching something could send you into a fit of rage? Scott Cummins (University of the Sunshine Coast) and a team of researchers discovered that female squid (Loligo pealeii) line their eggs with a pheromone, ß-MSP. Males are visually attracted to the egg capsules, and, upon touching them, become extremely aggressive– fighting off other male squid. Females mate and lay multiple egg masses within a short period, and it is thought that this phenomenon evolved as a means to ensure that the females mate with the most vigorous competitors. Interestingly, a similar protein to the aggression pheromone is also found in mammals – but, as yet, no one knows what it does. The findings were published in Current Biology in 2011.

Spawning squid


The native flat oyster (Ostraea angasi) is one of our tasty summer treats, but it may also be the source of modern Australian fisheries law. The oyster dominated temperate reefs at the turn of the 20th century but soon after became the target of overfishing. South Australian scientists Heidi Alleway and Sean Connell have hypothesised that the oyster’s collapse attracted the first Australian fisheries legislation to control takes and designate conservation areas.

Ostraea angasi from Molluscs of Tasmania, Photo Simon Grove


In 1960 Australian Malacologist Bob Burn published a note in Nature that he had collected a live specimen of the unusual bivalve species Berthelinia typica (Gatliff & Gabriel, 1911) know previously from shells and fossil records. To his great surprise, this bivalved shell had a little gastropod inside, with a sweet little gastropod face and all! Bob was amongst the first to observe and record the existence of these tiny, cryptic, bivalved gastropods (Family Juliidae). The occurrence of such gastropods have significant implications for evolutionary theories within the Mollusca, including how and when true bivalves evolved and the emergence of symmetry within gastropods. This beauty Berthelinia limax (Kawaguti & Baba, 1959) was captured in a rockpool by one of our key members Matt Nimbs in January last year!

Berthelinia limax (left) and newly settled Berthelinia juvenile (right), Photos by Matt Nimbs, Carmel McDougall


Well over a century ago Australian malacological history occurred in 1894 in South Australia, when at 8pm on the 20th September Sir Joseph Verco commenced the first meeting of the Malacological Society in the rooms of the Royal Society of South Australia.? Other notable persons present included Professor R. Tate, Mr J. Adcock, Mr. W. T. Adcock, Dr. Perks, Dr. Cleland, Dr. R. H. Pulleine, Mr. W. Reed and Miss Stowe.?? We consider this meeting to be the formation of the first such group outside of the UK and notably the first in Australia. Beyond the main group, the enduring reference specimen collection now stands and includes much of Verco’s initial collection and reference material, as well as subsequent personal contributions and donations by the many that followed.

Sir Joseph Verco (left) and original Minutes from the first Australian malacology meeting (right), photos sourced by Peter Hunt

The use of tools by animals is considered a hallmark of intelligence, but observations of this had previously been restricted to mammals and birds. In 2009, a team of Australian malacologists observed the Veined Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) carrying coconut shell halves to use as impromptu protection when needed. The paper was published in the scientific journal Current Biology in 2009 and is the first reported use of tools in invertebrates. Watch the video here.

an octopus carrying a coconut shell

The publication of ‘Mollusca: The Southern Synthesis’ in 1998 was a huge achievement in Australasian Malacology. This incredibly ambitious, 2 volume work compiled and synthesised knowledge of morphology, physiology, natural history, biogeography and phylogeny at multiple levels of classification within the Mollusca. With contributions from 70 authors it is the most comprehensive and authoritative treatment yet of Australia’s freshwater, marine and terrestrial molluscs and still has relevance and utility well beyond Australia.

Mollusca: The Southern Synthesis against the backdrop of Lord Howe Island, Photo Caitlin Woods

Week 1: Happy 60th birthday to the MSA!
December 2016 marks 60 years since the inaugural AGM of the Malacological Society of Australia (later known as the Malacological Society of Australasia). The MSA was formed from its predecessor, the Malacological Club of Victoria, and several founding members have been honoured in nudibranch names (photo below of Phyllodesmium macphersonae named after Hope Macpherson). The MSA Newsletter (issue 159) has more information about the MSA’s early days, as we sift through some amazing archives from the past 60+ years.

Phyllodesmium macpersonae, named after early MSA Member Hope Macpherson, photo by Platon Vafiadis