Field of Science

The Australian Panda

The world is home to an incredible diversity of snails: there are literally thousands of species, some widespread, some restricted to very small areas. Most, as is the usual way of things, are tiny, barely discernible without very close examination. But then there are some that are very much not—such as the giant panda snail Hedleyella falconeri.

Giant panda snail Hedleyella falconeri, from the Queensland Museum.


Giant pandas are found on rainforest floors in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, in a range spanning from the Barrington Tops to the D'Aguilar Range. They are Australia's largest land snail, reaching nine centimetres in diameter, about the size of a tennis ball. They have globose, reddish brown shells with a spiral pattern of darker broken bands. Their name bears no relation to any Asian mammals; instead, they were gifted the genus name Panda as a derivation from the Latin word pandere, meaning to stretch out or extend, presumably in reference to their size. The genus name later had to be changed but it survives in the vernacular (as well as in the name of a closely related genus of slightly smaller snails, Pygmipanda).

Panda snails are nocturnal, spending the days in moist spots such as buried in leaf litter or hidden under logs. At night, they roam in search of fallen leaves and fungal fruiting bodies. A study of giant pandas that tracked individual snails found that they wandered more or less randomly, up to about 20 metres over the course of a night, without returning to any particular 'home' site.

A demonstration of the size of H. falconeri, from Pollinator Link.


Like many other land snails, giant pandas are hermaphrodites, able to both fertilise and be fertilised during mating. They may have the largest sperm cells of any mollusc, each over a millimetre in length. Mating usually happens on a February night though observations in captivity suggest it may happen whenever consitions are suitable. The snail lays its hard-shelled eggs in batches of fifteen to twenty in a burrow in the leaf litter*. To continue with the theme, these are also realtively gigantic: close to two centimetres in diameter, comparable in size to those of a small bird. The young snails hatch at about 15 mm in size (I haven't found any reference to the eggs being tended by the parent in any way) and grow slowly. By the time they reach a year in age, they may not have even doubled in size, and it presumably takes several years for them to reach their full extent.

*So it turns out Paazan was right after all: pandas do hatch from eggs.

Pandas are not uncommon within their range and are not generally regarded as a conservation concern. Indeed, their nomadic habits have led to the suggestion that they may be well disposed to re-colonising regenerating forest (Parkyn & Newell 2013). Nevertheless, recent years have seen increasing fragmentation of suitable habitat within their range and this, together with their slow growth rate, means that I can easily imagine them becoming vulnerable if conditions deteriorate. I would hope that appropriate action is taken to ensure that there should always be giant pandas in eastern Australia.

REFERENCE

Parkyn, J., & D. A. Newell. 2013. Australian land snails: a review of ecological research and conservation approaches. Molluscan Research 33 (2): 116–129.

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