Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Conserving Maltese molluscs

Goat snail (Cantareus apertus) Mogħża
Molluscs are soft-bodied animals that more often than not have an external shell made of calcium carbonate.

The best known molluscs are the gastropods, bivalves and cephalopods.  In layman’s terms gastropods are the snails and slugs, bivalves are the two-shelled creatures such as oysters, clams and mussels and the cephalopods are the octopuses and squids. Molluscs are often found in aquatic habitats especially marine habitats.

There are about 93,000 species of molluscs in the world and more will be identified as more research is carried out. In Malta hundreds of species can be found on land and in the surrounding waters. Between 63 and 69 species are found on land. These include those species which live in fresh or brackish water. Surprisingly enough these include one species of freshwater bivalve. Of the gastropods, nine live in fresh water, nine are found in brackish water while the rest are terrestrial. Three species are not indigenous as they were introduced in the Maltese islands in relatively recent times. These species are restricted to a small number of public gardens.

One aquatic species which lived in the mouth of a spring is now probably extinct in the wild as building in the vicinity of the spring destroyed the source of fresh water which is needed by this particular species. This is not the only mollusc that has become extinct in the Maltese islands. Three species which lived in fresh water have not been seen in recent years. Other species are considered as vulnerable or threatened with extinction. The most endangered species live in restricted areas or habitats such as brackish water.

Maltese molluscs are also interesting because several are endemic to the Maltese islands, that is, they are not found outside the Maltese islands. Many of these endemics are restricted to a small area and can easily become extinct as well but in this case their extinction is far more serious as since they are not found living anywhere else they would be lost to humanity forever. This is not a remote possibility as more of the Maltese countryside is destroyed every year as happened to half the habitat of a particular species which now lies underneath a carpark.

The Maltese are responsible for the conservation of all the endemic Maltese species. There is nothing wrong with supporting the conservation of popular species such as whales but more importantly we must ensure that the small less glamorous species are protected and not allowed to become extinct.

This article was published in The Times on 9 December 2009.

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