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 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