This week I was lucky enough to meet one of Australia’s biggest snail celebrities – Dr. Winston Ponder of the Australian Museum.
Those outside of the ‘snail nerd’ circles may not know the name, but within the discipline, and particularly within Australia, he is one of the most influential and important people for figuring out, discovering and describing the majority of Australia’s snail diversity. He has authored numerous books , scientific papers and described the majority of the snails in springs . He’s also an amazingly kind and generous person who spends a lot of his time passing on knowledge, teaching others and campaigning for the conservation of many of the species he has discovered and described.
So, in honour of Winston and to spill out some of my admiration onto a page too short to summarise everything, I will attempt to capture my 4 reasons I think you should say hi and shake this man’s hand if you ever see him around the place.
#1 He is passionate about the system he works in
Yesterday, Winston told a story over lunch about how, when on an expedition to central Australia they visited numerous water points and flows and found nothing, but to their excitement, after days of dusty dirty driving and little of note re: snail discoveries they jumped into the pools of Dalhousie and, on one single bank as he looked into the edges, he saw snails he knew were found nowhere else and had not been seen before. Likewise when he visited Edgbaston for the first time, before it was a conservation reserve, he just looked into the pools and knew that this place held species that he had never seen before. In recounting both of these stories, he was so excited and passionate about those species and their discovery, and understanding them, you could not help but be excited as well. This is probably also why he has been so influential in not only highlighting how amazing Australian springs are, but also in making sure people consider the invertebrate fauna of this system as well as the fishes. His passion and dedication is awe inspiring!
#2 Without him we would know nothing about spring snails
Winston is responsible for describing all of the species of Tateidae (used to be Hydrobiidae) found in springs. These species represent the majority of snail diversity in springs. He has measured, dissected and deliberated over these tiny tiny snails from the middle of nowhere, figured out which are different and which are the same, and continues to update his previous findings (he began this quest in the 1980’s) in lieu of the new evidence on offer. Rather than considering the system in a “slap-dash” way he has really understood what is going on, and quested to find all those minute details or subtle situations that may be going on. He uses modern techniques like incorporating genetic evidence into the assessment of evolutionary and phylogenetic relationships, but also has a ridiculous amount of skill regarding classical taxonomy – and so is able to weave them together.
#3 It’s not just about describing species, it’s about understanding their stories
As an ecologist, a more “philosophy-bent” one at that, and one who spends most of their time beating about in bushes, I sometimes find it difficult to bond with taxonomists. Sometimes the “Pokemon” like obsession with discovering and naming species can be a bit boring for me, because I want to know where they come from, how they are adapted to their environment, and how they came to be that way. Winston’s work is more than just species descriptions – he is dedicated to understanding how we have such high diversity. Without his work, for example, we wouldn’t know that the snails in springs came not on birds from the mountains, but were stranded in springs as the Australian continent dried out (see my schematic below) – some of which went on to move back to tropical environments in northern Australia. He’s interested in trying to figure out the differences in things not just by what they look like, or their genes, but also how they respond to stressors in their environment. He is interested in understanding the path by which all of the diversity we find today has developed. All of these things make one top taxonomist and the type I really enjoyed hanging out with.
- My favourites being ‘The Other 99% – The Conservation and Biodiversity of Invertebrates‘ and ”Phylogeny and Evolution of the Mollusca‘ and soon a huge new book on Freshwater snails of Australia is coming out which he is a big part of.
- These include overviews like this on narrow-range taxa, to species descriptions like these about springs snails and opinion pieces like his work on the conservation of invertebrates.