Landsnail Collecting in Indonesia

by Neil Fahy
In September of 1994 I took a two week cruise to visit the islands of the Lesser Sunda -- Bali and the islands eastward to Alor, south to Savu and north to Sulawesi (Celebes). The trip was near the end of the dry season and not a good time for snailing.

Indonesia is a land of contrasts. The 13,700-island archipelago stretches for 4,000 miles -- the distance from San Francisco to Bermuda. If the western tip of Sumatra were at San Francisco, Bali would be at St. Louis, Alor at New York City, Savu at Charlotte, NC, and our port in Sulawesi at Toronto. Although it is a large country, it is mostly water -- the Indonesians call their country "Our Land Water."

The population is over 175 million, the fifth most populous country in the world, with 90% living in Sumatra, Java, and Bali. These three islands contain some of the most densely inhabited regions on earth, yet few places on earth are as sparsely settled as Kalimantan (Borneo) and Irian Jaya (western New Guinea). Indonesia is one of the few places where the four major religions of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism are represented, but many tribal peoples still adhere to animistic beliefs.

The geology is also varied, with volcanoes, coral reefs, and remnants of former continents. Throughout much of Indonesia, at least one volcano is in view. The Greater Sunda has wet rain forest while the Lesser Sunda (where I went) is dry. The very fitting motto of the Republic is "Unity in Diversity."

The malacologist Alan Solem wrote, "While the terrestrial vertebrates of Borneo are Malaysian in affinity, and Wallace's Line between Borneo and Celebes separates a distinctly Oriental from an Australian fauna, the land mollusks are unaware of such matters. There is basically a single fauna of land snail taxa that extends in very gradually diminishing numbers from Southeast Asia to the Solomon Islands." So large and varied as it is, Indonesia has many landsnail species. Since landsnail classification is based on internal anatomy, empty shells are difficult to identify.


Spent a night in Singapore to recover from the long air flight. Made time to visit the Botanical Garden -- a good place for snail collecting because of the watering. On the ground under trees were dead Asperitas shells. This is a Southeast Asian helicoid genus of large (over 25mm) shells, usually with one or more spiral bands and many species. My Singapore specimens are without a spiral band. I have not, as yet, determined the species. Collected with Asperitas were Bradybaena similaris and Subulina octona. These two "tropical tramps" are widespread throughout most tropical and warm temperate regions. They are spread by commerce and, consequently, are found near human habitation and port cities. B. similaris is native to China and is characterized by its 12-16mm flattened cream-colored shell, usually with a thin brown peripheral spiral line. The other "tropical tramp" is a 10-15mm elongated, almost spindle-shaped shell with a lemon-yellow animal. The introduced 60-80mm African landsnail Achatina fulica with its solid, high-spired shell and irregular brown and cream blotches and zig-zag stripes was also present. It was introduced throughout tropical Asia as a food source. It has subsequently spread to Hawaii and was recently reported from Martinique in the Caribbean. It readily eats crops and is the biggest-sized and economically the most important landsnail pest in the world.


Bali is overwhelming, hard to describe. It has many people, great activity, temples, dragons, masks, kites, and bright colors. Hinduism is strongest in Bali and diminishes eastward. There are flower-filled offering dishes in front of the shops and even at the entrances to individual hotel rooms. In Bali there are more shrines than houses. Each home has at least one shrine which protects the house from the volcano.

On the southern peninsula of Bali, across the road from the hotel, is a limestone quarry. Explored the area and found, walking on the foliage and the branches of smooth-barked trees, A. fulica, the helicoid Asperitas rareguttata forma crebiguttata, and tall, brightly colored Amphidromus perversus. The Asperitas species, with its single brown stripe, in a native to the Indonesian island of Flores, but has been introduced to Bali. Amphidromus, with sinistral and dextral shells, is one of the most colorful landsnail genera. Its spiral and radial color patterns are on an enamel-like shell surface. Native to Southeast Asia, it has many species endemic to specific islands. A. perversus are sinistrally and dextrally coiled in about equal numbers. I was told that Achatina does not damage the rice crop but is killed and fed to chickens.


After boarding the ship in Bali, our first stop was the large island of Sumbawa, dominated by the great Tambora volcano. In 1815 Tambora produced the largest eruption in history, even greater than the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. We used zodiaks from the ship and waded ashore to a beach. Landing at the small village of Kananga on the Tambora Peninsula, we visited the school and fish hatchery. Because the village has a strong Muslim influence, women were asked to dress conservatively, i.e., shoulders and thighs (and everything in between) should be covered.

Spent the afternoon a short distance from Katanga on Satonda Island. The island is a volcano which was active until the 1815 eruption of Tambora. Apparently Tambora pulled the magma from Satonda, causing the summit to collapse. The result is a brackish crater lake. Above the lake shore is a sacred banyan tree. If you make a petition, hang a rock from a shrub at the lake shore, swim in the lake, and spend the night there, your petition will be granted. Since I couldn't spend the night, I searched for landsnails, unsuccessfully.


The island of Komodo is much larger (130 square miles) and more rugged ( to 2,400 feet) than I had anticipated. The Komodo dragons are the largest lizards on earth -- almost 10 feet long and weighing 330 lbs. Presently, they are found only on the islands of Komodo and nearby Padar and Rinca, and on the western coast of Flores Island. It is interesting that these regions were also free of recent volcanic activity. Could volcanic action be the cause of the dragons' restricted range?

Since July, the park rangers have not been feeding the dragons, because the authorities want the dragons to hunt their own food. Consequently, some of the dragons are still waiting at the feeding site. The island is dry; its hills are bare, but there are trees and shrubs in the valley areas where the dragons are found. The rangers accompanied us as "protection," each carrying a forked stick to fend off any dragons we encountered. One ranger led and the other brought up the rear. We are fortunate the dragons are docile because I don't think a forked stick is going to deter a six-foot 300-lb carnivorous lizard.

Along the wooded path were many empty shells of the two endemic subspecies of Amphidromus, the spirally banded A. poecilochrous candidus and the both radially and spirally patterned A. p. jaeckeli. Both subspecies are sinistrally coiled. I searched unsuccessfully for dextral shells. I wonder why Komodo has only sinistral ones? At a dragon nest site there were shell fragments of the spirally-banded tree snail, Asperitas colorata komodoensis; the dragons occasionally eat them. Further along I was fortunate to photograph live specimens of these and also of Amphidromus poecilochrous candidus, another tree dweller. The Asperitus was in a rotted hole in a tree and the Amphidromus was on a tree trunk; both animals were about five feet above the ground. The snails of both genera were abundant inland in the valleys but absent within a few hundred yards of the coast, perhaps because of a lack of trees near the coast.

Spent the afternoon at the Pink Beach on the east side of Komodo. The pink color is due to broken bits of organ-pipe coral. I walked up on the ridge looking for snails but the lack of trees rendered my search unsuccessful. When I returned to the beach the ship had set up an ice cream stand there, serving three flavors and eleven toppings -- an example of the hard life on a tropical island. Fortunately, the dragons haven't tasted ice cream yet.


We now left the volcanic islands and headed south to Savu, a remnant of a former continental region. The low grassy island produces highly prized miniature horses. Made a wet landing on a long, steep, sandy beach. We were welcomed by the chief and horsemen dressed in their traditional Ikat clothes. The people are very handsome except for their teeth and lips which are stained by betel juice.

This is a one-economy island, an economy based on the lontar palm. It produces wood for construction and leaves for weaving, thatching, and making musical instruments. The tree also produces a sugar-rich sap which is boiled and made into palm sugar, as well as a refreshing sweet drink, and even wine. A man climbed a lontar palm and collected some of the sugary sap. Previously prepared sap was poured into lotar leaf cups. It tasted refreshing with a slight lemon flavor and was slightly carbonated. The boiling made it thicker than 7-Up. After more dances we inspected the Ikat weaving.

Took a ride in the back of a truck, with a hole in the floor, to see the sacred stones about a mile or more inland. These stones are on the crest of a hill overlooking the coastal area. They are four feet in diameter, circular, but flat on top and about a foot thick. They are composed of a different rock than the rest of the area. When asked about the origin of the stones, they answered, "They were spirited here." On a terrace about thirty feet above sea level under a banyan tree, I found empty shells of Rhagada cf. solorensi and Chloritis agrillacea. The Rhagada is a 15mm depressed shell with multiple brown spiral stripes and a thickened lip. The only Indonesian species I found in the literature is from Solor Island in East Flores. My specimen may be a range extension or possibly a new species. Chloritis is a genus with many Indonesian species. Mine has a 20mm light-brown helicoid shell.

Alor - Takpala Village

Sailing northeast, we arrived at the most eastern point on our journey, the island of Alor. The Alor people have negroid features and fuzzy hair. The men look much more threatening than at Savu, but then they were cannibals until 1960! After a short welcome ceremony in the port, we rode buses to the north coast traditional hillside village of Takpala. Here we were greeted by "friendly" natives with spears. They charged at us as we walked into the village. We were told that this was to impress us but that we were welcome -- they would have thrown the spears if we were not welcome! They did some traditional dances which were very colorful.


Kakabia is a small (a mile or less in diameter) island in the middle of the Flores Sea. Took a zodiak ride around the island looking at the bird life. Saw frigate birds, brown boobies, tropic birds, etc. Landed and collected some specimens of the "tropical tramp," Lamellaxis gracilis. This elongated species, originally from India, is considered the most widely distributed landsnail in the world. It is related to Subulina octona which is also a detritus feeder and has a lemon-yellow animal. They are both in the same family but can be distinguished by the columella. In Lamellaxis the columella is straight, while in Subulina it is truncated. Seems strange to find these introduced species on such a remote and tiny island.


Travelling westward, we arrived off the coast of Kabaena Island at the entrance to the Bonerate Gulf of Sulawesi. On arrival at the pier we were met by an elementary school band. Their instruments were made of bamboo -- they even had a sliding "trombone." The music sounded like a calliope. The envoy of the Sultan greeted us and led us to the Sultan. We then had a welcome ceremony and dances. Walked around the village of 27,000, including the stilt village of the Sea Gypsies. Walked on a rickety bamboo path to visit a Gypsy home. Left my shoes outside before entering, and enjoyed their hospitality.

Across from Kabaena Island is the small flat coral island of Sogori. Walking along the shore, saw a live volute with its brown mantle edged in yellow, foot-long brown sea cucumbers, moon snail egg cases, and a brittle star.

Sulawesi -- Nanggala Village

Sulawesi is the current name for the Celebes. Our destination was Toragaland in the inland valley west of the port city of Palopo. Toragaland is as distinctive as any place I've visited. From a distance the parabolic house roofs resemble arks floating in a sea of tropical foliage. The eaves curve upward, like the prow and stern of a ship, projecting dramatically beyond the ends of the house. Interlocking layers of split bamboo covered with flat strips of pounded bamboo form the roof and act like a thousand sloping gutters to keep the house snug and dry during torrential rains.

The house front had the curved wooden head of a water buffalo -- symbol of wealth -- attached to it. Below the painted white head ranged a set of panels depicting entire buffaloes, some black, some spotted. Buffaloes are ranked according to color. Piebald buffaloes are the most valuable, worth ten to twenty times the price of an ordinary black animal. The pink buffalo with white hair and china blue eyes is the rarest.

Sulawesi -- Lemo Village

A few minutes' ride from Nanggala is Lemo, a silent cliff of death. The cliff is impressive because, standing like spectators are wide-eyed "doubles" leaning on railings like sports fans, on the balconies of a condo. When a new corpse is buried in a cliff tomb, his life-size double takes its place in the rock gallery. The "doubles" with sleepless eyes are fully dressed and often provided with travelling sacks for their trip to the land of souls.

At the base of the limestone cliffs were dead shells of Cyclophorus politus (the only operculate snail I saw), Hemiplecta wichmanni, and Planispira bulbulus. This Cyclophorus has a 20mm rapidly expanding shell with a wide umbilicus, rounded aperture, and an apex which does not project above the depressed shell. The Hemiplecta has a beautiful, greenish, 40mm, depressed, fragile shell. In contrast, Planispira is a 35mm solid discoidal shell with a reflexed lip.

Salayar -- Pasi

Anchored off Pasi Island. Most people went snorkeling. Four of us went to the beach a little distance from the village. Our leader told us we were probably the first white people to arrive here in a long time. Children met us on the beach. I said good morning in Indonesian and they stepped back in surprise. Then they smiled and approached. They followed the three beachcombers which allowed me to leave the beach and inspect the inland vegetation. It was mostly palm and a few spiny shrubs. Under new palm fronds, found a Bradybaena similaris and Lamellaxis gracilis. Took a litter sample which has yielded many microscopic species.

Along the beach, saw chocolate chip sea star and the sea urchin Diadema setosum. Offshore are large permanent arrow-shaped fish traps, some a block wide, made of bamboo. The traps point away from the beach. When fish encounter a barrier, they turn into deeper water. Utilizing this principle, the natives construct the traps so the fish cannot escape. The natives wait until low tide, wade to the traps, and pick up the fish.

Sabalana Atoll -- Laija Island

Our last stop was the Sabalana Atoll. The captain picked out the tiny island Laija as our landing site. The island has a long sandspit on the east and palm trees on the west with a maximum elevation of 10-15 feet. There are about four or five stilt houses in a cluster on the north side. Using the zodiaks, we landed on the sand spit. There was pumice at the high water line. I liked to imagine it was from Krakatoa or Tambora. At the connection of the spit to the island there was a saltwater lagoon. Made a transect across the island and down its length. This was a "friendly" island without thorn bushes. It was the only unthorny place we visited. Snail collecting was poor. The island had marine snails under the trees inland -- I imagine it is frequently under seawater. Near the houses, found several large marine shells of Telescopium telescopium among the ashes of a fire pit. The animals were probably eaten by the locals.


What did I learn from the trip? Large snails occur on large islands and small snails occur on small islands, introduced snails can occur anywhere, dragons do exist, and people are friendly all over the world.

* Footnote:

Alfred Russel Wallace. In 1858, Wallace and Charles Darwin, simultaneously and quite independently, published the Theory of Evolution. Wallace's Line follows a course of deep water running southwest from just south of the Philippine island of Mindanao, between Borneo and Celebes and down through the Lombok Strait to divide Bali from the island of Lombok. During the Pleistocene, when water levels were low, all the land north and west of the Wallace Line was a single large peninsula, across which species could move freely. Even today, these areas, now islands, share many of the same species.