By Anu Yagi
Our curious and comely archipelago—which Mark Twain penned as “the loveliest fleet of islands anchored in any ocean”—assumes a lonely mooring. The most isolated island chain on Earth, over 30 million years of Goldilocks evolution, the Hawaiian Islands’ extreme conditions yielded unrivaled diversity.
“Essentially, you’d have to go to another planet to find this kind of endemism,” says malacologist Mike Severns, a renowned discoverer and sought-after explorer (he’s got a bird, a land crab, two seashells, a fish and a seahorse named for him).
His uncommon shelled-mollusks specialty—and in such an uncommon place—means he’s privy to an alien world of strange, conical creatures. Severns recently authored Shells of the Hawaiian Islands—released this May from German publishing company ConchBooks—with the help of more than 100 expert contributors from 21 countries. It’s an unprecedented two-volume opus chronicling the Hawaiian Islands’ “verifiable species and their described variants” of both sea and land shells.
“Because the Hawaiian Islands are so isolated, it’s the first time ever that such a geographically isolated fauna—and everything we know about it—has been put into one book,” Severns says. He says not only is Hawaii’s uniqueness what lent to the origin of these species themselves, but it’s the very thing that allowed for such an autonomous work’s creation.
How marine life made it to our secluded quicksilver seas is no secret, but the arrival of terrestrial snails is more mercurial. Severns explains how animals were likely caught high-up in jet streams, stuck on debris or wings, and every few millenium made miraculous landings on little bits of land below.
“It all starts from one individual—not a species. One individual from a species arrives in Hawaii and is successful. From there, everything goes,” says Severns with a swift, whistling onomatopoeia; gesturing the trajectory of the tenacity of life.
A scientists’ scientist, Severns is a brash delight. Effortlessly erudite and touched with a Richard Dawkins-esque irreverence, during our interview he pads about his immaculate South Maui home, spouting anecdotal explanation of artifacts in his collection (a piece of the Earth’s mantel from Hualalai; the skull of a previously unnamed bird now named for him), and points out some of the (literally) thousands of neat things in his new book.
“Look at this,” he says on repeat—neither too-eagerly willing nor overweening (when he easily could be)—and rattles off scientific names amidst the details of an international expedition, dashed with a cursory curse word or two. His manner is at once old school scientific haute and modern candidity.
The volumes of his book are available separately or as a set (in a solid-clip case to highlight the spine’s seamless design), featuring full-color high resolution plates grouped by family. The 562-page The Sea Shells volume features 2,828 images on 225 plates, representing 1,333 described marine species in 146 families. Meanwhile the 459-page The Land Shells volume boasts a staggering 3,117 images on 186 plates—with 363 distribution maps noting terrestrial habitat—of 749 species (“that’s more species than are found on North America”).
“Essentially, if you find a snail in Hawaii that is not in this book, it’s either introduced or it’s an undescribed species—and you can still find undescribed species of Hawaiian snails,” says Severns. “I know of about 250 (species) in museums that are not described. So, this is about three quarters of the existing known fauna in Hawaii.”
But the description process is a long an arduous one (more on that later), and though the “inventory is far from saturated,” Severns says, “the goal of this book is to make a bookmark in time—a snapshot… an attempt to put it all together for the first time with everything we knew.”
The book begins on Jan. 20, 1778, “the date when science began in the Hawaiian Islands; when the first specimens were collected.” (The Land Shells contains a photo of the first lei specimen ever collected from the Hawaiian Islands; a “very important artifact” that, until Severns’s book, was misidentified as being of Tongan origin. Also, The Sea Shells has a photo of the first Niihau shell lei, collected by Cook and comrades at that time, which examples the natives’ pre-contact stringing style.)
Traveling through time, the book “goes right up to December 18, 2010,” where Severns says he “drew the line… Because at that point we weren’t getting any new information or material.”
Severns’s book is the culmination “of more than three decades of research” and four and a half painstaking years of writing and coordinating work from contributing scientists the world over.
“It was a huge effort,” he says. “We went to authorities all over the world, and you have to acquiesce to these people… What was interesting is the number of languages that were spoken in the creation of this book. A lot of people were writing in their second language… I had to translate that, basically, without losing the content.”
Severns calls it “his life’s contribution,” and a “century book”—meaning researchers need not make a similarly comprehensive study for another 100 years.
Prior to Severns’s undertaking, there had been but one comparable source—an all-illustrated, black-and-white book by University of Hawaii professor Dr. Alison Kay called Hawaiian Marine Shells, produced by the Bishop Museum in 1979.
“It was very difficult to identify a lot of the material in it,” says Severns, noting the limited technology and resources of the time. “She was a briliiant malacologist, but she did not have access to what we have today.”
It was Kay’s book, in part, that lead him to produce a small seashell guide for tourists. After contacting Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution to further his project and “make this thing a little more substantial,” Severns says that the idea for Shells of the Hawaiian Islands came at the behest of Dr. Jerry Harasewych, curator of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Natural History.
“I could see it in my mind,” he says. “It was something I was very familiar with. I thought, ‘I can see this. I can do this.’ But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. One thing that [Kay] did—that I did not do—is that she essentially tried to become an expert in all of the [146 marine] families. It was just way beyond one person’s scope.”
Instead, he solicited expertise from around the globe and his travels took him likewise.
Don Hemmes of the University of Hawaii at Hilo was “one of the first people to jump on this book and make it happen,” says Severns. “Getting permission to go to all these other major museums all over the world and go through their material required credibility—and that started with Don. Then, it snowballed.”
He was then led, notably, to Paris—a place he calls “the hotbed of malacology” today—at France’s National Museum of Natural History (MNHN). Severns says that Dr. Philippe Bouchet, senior professor at the museum, took a particular interest in the book—becoming “instrumental” in its creation—and gave Severns an all-access, anytime pass to the museum’s collection.
“Paris is a very active museum,” Severns says, so he’d “wrangle” visiting scientists into writing about the families within their expertise. He adds that another plus to Paris is that it’s much easier to have on-loan specimens shipped directly to MNHN than it is to deal with difficult paperwork with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Severns was also one of just 10 divers in the world to be invited on an expedition to Madagascar, financed by Prince Albert of Monaco, and is already a part of plans for a follow-up mission. “They’re running expeditions all over the world,” he says. “The next one is in Northern New Guinea. We find new species up the yin yang. There’s buckets of this stuff. We’re diving in places that no ones ever really looked at.”
But most of all, Severns says, Paris is a “hotbed” because “they’re putting it all together”—and for the first time, information is being aggregated into computers. “Things that have been named two or three times are being discovered that they’ve been named two or three times. A senior name is now being assigned to them; and the whole thing is now coming together.”
Because “it’s one of the few natural sciences that is so complex,” Severns explains, “the work is now at a fever pitch… I’ve just spent two days pondering a shell and two months describing it—and there are probably 50,000 to be described. It’s going to take a lot of people a lot of time to get it done.”
Though Severns calls his work “a century book,” he’s also aware and excited that “the book is now going to get picked apart—and it’s already begun.”
He admits there are a few already-known mistakes that made it into the book—but only discovered because of the book. For example, because of the plates’ high resolution imaging, during the publishing process he and his colleagues noticed previously undescribed species previously grouped with something similar.
“You can’t say anything at this point because that’s the scientific process,” says Severns. “It’s so involved [and] it has to be done according to the rule.”
Already, many other pending revisions have been noted, discovered in the short time since the book’s May publication, usually by the international writers and reviewers themselves.
Exhausted by the initial endeavor, Severns sighs about the forthcoming work. “We’re already planning in the next five or 10 years [that] we’re going to create a second edition and include all of this stuff,” he says. Still he, stresses his excitement, saying “what people have to realize is that I’m not going to take offense.” In fact, it’s the point.
“This gives everybody something to start with,” he tells me. “Everything is here, everything we know up until this point.” Then he lifts The Sea Shells volume, letting all 562 stitched pages plop authoritatively on the table. “This is accurate stuff.”