Landsnails and Scenery in Malaysia

by Neil Fahy
Haven't you always wanted to explore the tropical jungles of Borneo? Well, in 1995 my own dream came true -- landsnail collecting in Borneo -- when I joined a tour of sixteen people to Malaysia. The country consists of two areas -- Peninsular Malaysia and two states (Sabah and Sarawak) on the island of Borneo. Unlike Indonesia, which I visited in 1994, Malaysia is not located on a subduction zone and consequently lacks volcanoes and earthquakes, which is OK with me.

Let's take a brief look at the world of landsnails. Living on land, they occupy almost every habitat along the sea, in the deserts and on the mountain peaks. Landsnails are separated into two large groups - those breathing with gills (Prosobranchia) and those breathing with lungs (Pulmonata). The gilled snails have a single pair of tentacles with the eyes located at the base, and an operculum for sealing the generally rounded aperture, and the sexes are usually in separate animals. They are mainly tropical animals with a few genera in semi-tropical areas. The snails with lungs have two sets of tentacles with the eyes at the tip of the upper pair, lack an operculum, and are hermaphroditic. The great majority of landsnails are pulmonates. In Malaysia, however, the prosobranchs comprise a third of the recorded species!

We flew from California to Peninsular Malaysia, landing at Kuala Lumpur, the capital, where I found the ever-present African landsnail Achatina fulica and the "tropical tramps" Subulina octona and Bradybaena similaris. The 3-4" Achatina fulica with its radial brown flames has been introduced as a food source throughout Southeast Asia and most of the islands in the Pacific. It feeds on live vegetation and is a crop menace. The "tropical tramps" are found everywhere in the tropics near habitation. Bradybaena similaris is usually helicoid, with a single brown stripe. Subulina octona is recognized by its shining shell surface, cylindrical shape, truncate columella, and lack of strong sculpture.

Our destination for the next four days was the national park northeast of Kuala Lumpur called Taman Negara -- which conveniently means "national park." This virgin lowland rain forest is on the eastern drainage of the peninsula, a three hour bus ride to Kuala Tembeling and a three hour boat ride to the park. The boat had back rests and a pad for sitting, but the pad was on the floor. We sat, feet outstretched, on the bottom of the boat for the three hour trip upriver. Because the area had been logged, the scenery was not very exciting and the river was chocolate brown.

Comfortable accommodations at Kuala Tahana blended with the environment. Went for an hour-long night walk after dinner. The temperature was hot and steamy, the forest, dark and dense. Using flashlights we scanned the foliage for animal life. We saw one inch long velvet ants and two live Cyclophorus. These snails have a large (30-70mm) depressed shell with a flammulate or spiral color pattern. According to the early literature they are dangerous. If they crawl across your shadow, they will drain your blood and cause your death. I didn't believe this, but I did avoid their contact with my shadow. No sense taking chances.

Woke up to the morning prayer at 5:45. Along the path to the dining room were many live Chloritis -- 18mm greenish-brown shells with a red spiral band near the rounded periphery, a perforate umbilicus and a white reflexed lip. After breakfast we went on the new canopy walk. Completed in 1992, it is 230 meters long with six bridges, five platforms, and is 30 meters high. An interesting experience but we didn't see much wildlife.

Walked to Bukit Teresek for a view of the countryside -- a steep trail, climbing about a thousand feet. In the distance we could see Gunung Tahan (2186m), the highest point in Peninsular Malaysia. Along the trail, passed a colony of white headed gibbons. They made a lot of noise, but I didn't see any -- they blended into the jungle background.

After lunch, a ten minute boat ride downstream to climb a steep, slippery bank and walk a half mile through open forest to the entrance of the Gua Telinga cave. It is not a real cave, but openings between collapsed limestone boulders. I did find the tramps, Bradybaena similaris and Lamellaxis gracilis. L. gracilis, in the same family as Subulina, lacks the truncated columella, and is considered the most widely ranging of all landsnails. It is found in almost all tropical and semi-tropical regions.

While eating dinner in the outdoor dining area, saw a green- spotted three foot long Paradise Tree Snake. It climbed up a 4X4 post and then up a straight wall. It was remarkable. It is a rear- fanged snake and only mildly poisonous.

On our return to Kuala Lumpur we visited Batu Cave, a Hindu shrine. We entered the cave by climbing a staircase consisting of 272 steps, "guarded" by many long-tailed macaques. The adults are about 18" tall and they growled as we walked past. Maybe they knew we were not Hindus. The cave is huge, with many altars decorated with carved figures of stone and wood. On the ground in the cave I found two dead Cyclotus perdix aquila. This operculate has a low- spired 20mm rapidly expanding shell with an aperture free of the previous whorl, brown radial blotches, and a prominent breathing tube. The tube allows the snail, during the dry season, to pull its operculum over the aperture and still breathe through the tube.

Flew to Sabah on the island of Borneo. We were met by our guide Cede who took us by bus to the pier in Sandakan. We then boarded two launches for the hour and a half ride to Green Turtle Island (Seningan Island). The island is small and the accommodations are minimal. The temperature was 100ø and the humidity was 98%. My room contained a cot, a covered mattress, and a towel, and a fan but no window, a toilet, oriental type at floor level, down the hall, but no running water. After dinner we watched a turtle lay about 95 eggs. The eggs were collected and taken to the hatchery where they were reburied. At the hatchery the previously hatched turtles were collected and counted before we returned them to the sea. On the beach the following morning the jeep-like tracks of the returning females could be seen from the nests to the sea.

Returning by boat, we drove on the dirt road to Gomantong Cave, one of the sources of birds nests for bird's nest soup. The small, cup-shaped nests are made by swiftlets from mosses and feathers held together by the swiftlet's saliva. A very pleasant trail over limestone rubble winds between the small trees. The ground is strewn with many dead shells, including Hemiplecta densa, Cyclotus iris, and Amphidromus martensi. H. densa has a large (38- 48mm) greenish-yellow shell with a spiral red band below the angular periphery. The empty shells are very fragile and are seldom found without breakage. C. iris ranged from 14-30mm. It resembles C. perdix aquila of the Peninsula except that the aperture is attached to the prior whorl and the breathing tube is inconspicuous. The A. martensi specimens exhibited variety. I collected six specimens, four unbanded with one sinistral and three dextral, and two more both banded and dextral. Along the bank at a stream crossing there were many live freshwater shells (Thiaridae). There are living quarters near the caves for the bird's nest collectors. The cave entrance is huge -- 100' high and 75' wide, with guano, cockroaches and dung beetles covering the floor. At the cave entrance I collected snails, including Alycaeus, a 6-7mm helicoid operculate with the body whorl exhibiting a sharp constriction which produces a distinct change in the sculpture. I took soil samples from the limestone depressions which have yielded twelve tiny "species."

We continued by canoe to Sukua River Lodge at the junction of Mananggel and Kinabatangan Rivers. After getting settled, we took a boat ride up the Menanggel River to see the proboscis monkeys. They were numerous, but high up in the trees. I was glad I brought my 600mm lens. Our guide Cede had taken the beautiful pictures for the book, Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo. There are three characteristics of the proboscis monkey -- 1) The males weigh about 20 kg, very heavy for a tree-dwelling animal, in fact one of the largest monkeys in the world. 2) They have enormous stomachs, twice as large as their nearest relative, and designed to digest leaves. This large stomach makes them look permanently pregnant -- even the males! 3) Males have huge, pendulous and greatly expanded fleshy noses which overhang their mouths. A male needs to push his nose aside when eating. Early accounts reported that the monkeys actually held their noses while they jumped from branch to branch. From my observations this is not true! After dinner went for a night walk. Saw many insects, frogs and snails. Found Leptopoma undatum, L. sericatum and Everettia. Leptopoma are Prosobranchia. The unpatterned trochoidal shell of L. undata is almost triangular in outline. Its bright green color is the color of the animal, not the shell. L. sericatum is smaller, helicoidal, and has several spiral bands. Everettia is 8-25mm, and has a greenish-yellow low- spired shell with a rounded periphery and is narrowly perforate.

Went for a boat ride after breakfast up the Menanggol River. While moving along, I spotted an Amphidromus martensi on a branch across the river. Our course was changed so that we could see the snail. Its dextral shell is yellow-green, and the animal has a white boarder on its yellow-brown foot. A short distance downriver our guide pointed out a reticulated python, the world's largest snake, and non-poisonous, coiled on an overhanging branch above our heads. There was nothing to fear, he assured us. It is only nine feet long, and four inches in diameter. They can attain a length of thirty feet and weigh 250 pounds!

Drove to Sandakan, stopping at the Sepilok Orang-Utan (man-of- the-woods) Center to see a feeding. The orangs are the only Asian great ape. Tailless, large-faced, with long hairy arms, they are social and very affectionate, always holding or touching each other. One mother had her dead baby hanging around her neck.

The next day we flew to Kota Kinabalu. The peak's serrate summit was visible and was very impressive. Mt. Kinabalu is the highest peak east of the Himalayas at 13,455'. The summit is unusual for a granite mountain; where most granite summits are either rounded or pointed, Kinabalu is composed of a series of tall granite spires: massive granite is cut by well-defined, close- spaced vertical joints, and lacks joints in the horizontal direction, so differential weathering can give rise to granite needles. The age of Mt. Kinabalu granite is 10 million years (Miocene) and is intruded into Paleogene clastic and sedimentary rocks.

The height of Mt. Kinabalu is increasing at 5mm/year or 0.2"/year. If the granite formed 10 miles below the surface and the elevation increase rate was constant (5mm/yr), it would require 4 million years to erode 10 miles of overburden and for the summit to reach its present height. It is a new mountain! The mountain has over a thousand species of orchids, 26 species of rhododendrons and nine species of pitcher plants. The many endemic plants are due in part to the mountain's isolation. It is a high biological island surrounded by low, inhospitable environments.

We drove to the park and visited Pouring Hot Springs. Saw the sulphur pools and walked the trail to the canopy walk. The only snail seen was Achatina fulica. Next morning Mt. Kinabalu was in all its glory. To look from our camp at 4,500' to the summit at 13,455' in a horizontal distance of 6.5 miles is impressive -- that's 1,600' per mile. We left at 8:30 and rode to the beginning of the Summit Trail at Timpohon Gate (6,000'). The trail is well constructed but steep. Walked past Carson's Waterfall in the dense forest from shelter to shelter: Pondok Kandis, at 6,500; Pondok Ubah, at 8,874'; Pondok Lowi, at 7,500'. Here the vegetation becomes more mossy. We had left the rain forest and were now in a cloud forest. On to the fourth shelter, Pondok Mempening, at 8,262', and finally, Layang Layang Staff Quarters, at 8,600'. Here were many species of orchids and pitcher plants (Nephentes). There are seven shelters, to 12,500', but the fifth was high enough for me.

It is strange how the tip of the pitcher plant leaf can develop into a cup 5 or 6" deep and 4" in diameter. The pitcher plant captures its prey when the victim flies into the pitcher. Downward-aimed hairs and fluid excretion prevent the victim from escaping. The plant possesses chemicals to dissolve the entire prey, hard parts and all. Wonder what prevents its own tissue from being dissolved?

The cloud forest presented many eerie visions, like the trail vanishing into the mist and trees standing in a sea of fog. The walk down was quicker than the walk up, but harder on the legs. Tired on arrival at the first shelter, my legs were even more tired on my return. Back at camp at about 5 p.m. after a long, tiring, delightful day, went snailing before bed; found Bradybaena similaris and Trachia. Trachia has a perforate, depressed, spirally banded, shouldered shell.

After breakfast visited the Mountain Garden, a botanical garden at park headquarters. Saw many orchids and pitcher plants. Found a live green slug with a remnant of a shell on the leaf of the orchid Phylogenia clementsi. The snail is probably a species of Microparmarion. The genus is "on the road to slugdom."

We flew to Sarawak in the afternoon. Next morning visited Sarawak Museum built by Raja Brooks to house Alfred Russell Wallace's collection. There were even some landsnails. Afterwards the museum hired a cab to take me to Wind Cave and Fairy Cave at Bau, about 40 miles south of Kutching. Wind Cave, with wooden walkways, is not accessible for collecting. Did find a few collecting sites -- the park ranger helped me. He showed me a human jaw that had been uncovered during the construction of the walkway. The cave was used as a shelter in prehistoric times. Many of the empty shells were from large freshwater species, minus their apex - - it was removed by striking it, in order to release the internal vacuum and allow the animal to be sucked out through the aperture. The entire process of striking, sucking and removal is quick -- a single suck will do it.

Drove the short distance to Fairy Cave. The entrance, about 30 meters above the parking area, has steps with a 2" riser and a very slippery 4" tread, a wooden rail on one side, the cliff on the other. Found many empty snail shells at the cave entrance, including Amphidromus similis, Achatina fulica, Phaedusa borneensis, Lamellaxis gracilis, Leptopoma, Opisthostoma, and Videna. A. similis resembles A. martensi but has a few brown sub- sutural spots and the calluses are purple-brown. P. borneensis is a skinny (22mm long and 3.2mm in diameter) sinistral shell with a pointed apex, reflected lip and toothed aperture. Opisthostoma are tiny radially ribbed helicoid operculates. The aperture seems to have a mind of its own. It grows away from the shell and in the opposite direction -- the most bizarre shell I've seen! Videna has a dextral, fragile, translucent 14mm lens-shaped shell. One specimen is sinistral. It sure looks like Videna. Will have to check on this.

Stopped at Bau to see the Bukit Young Gold Mine, a large, deep excavation with a horizontal tunnel. The Malaysian man sitting across the aisle from me on the plane home was a geologist and the manager of the Bau gold mine -- first operated by the British and abandoned prior to World War II. The excavation has filled with water, creating a lake into which the Japanese threw their ammunition and weapons at the end of the war. When the new manager took charge they drained the lake, but had to dispose of the weapons left by the Japanese. The mine is currently producing gold and expects to continue for a few more years. After the mining is completed, the area will be converted to a public park.

Next day went to Bako National park. I took the long (5.25km) Lintang Trail up the sandstone hill through wet forest to the flat surface on top. Here, many six-inch circles are cut in the sandstone, abundant, uniform, and not overlapping. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were formed by the exhaust of a small rocket ship. The sandstone drainage is poor and the area is like an elevated swamp. Pitcher plants are everywhere, on the ground and in the shrubs. Some are three inches and others are closer to six or seven. Also saw the carnivorous sundew. The walk back was long, hot and down -- didn't seem we'd climbed that much. Found Dyakia, Geotrochus labuanensis, Chloritis and Hemiplecta densa. Dyakia is a sinistral genus named for the Dyak, a general term referring to all the indiginous non-Islamic peoples of interior Borneo. It is also the world's only bioluminescant-shelled landsnail. The low intensity yellow-green flash lasting about a half second is emitted from a luminescent organ in the head. G. labuanensis resembles a Chinese hat, about 16mm in diameter, 7mm high and triangular in shape, with a narrow red band just above and below the angular periphery.

We then went to Demai Beach near Kutching. After breakfast, went on the Jungle Trek. Started in wet forest and ended in dry forest. Saw a picturesque waterfall along the way. The stream was clearclear! Only stream I'd seen where the headwaters had not been logged. Saw a green pit viper along the trail edge, and the snails Chloritis and Leptopoma undatum. I like snails but they did not hold my attention like the three-foot long pit viper.

Our final adventure was a night in an Iban longhouse. It was just an overnight visit but it was the experience of a lifetime. The Iban are one of the Dyak tribes.

We left Kutching early for our two-hour bus ride to the Engkare River. Just north of the Kalimantan/Sarawak border at Ulu Ai lake damsite, we were met by our Iban boatmen for an hour and a half boatride upriver to the Sunok longhouse near the junction of the Stamang and Engkarie Rivers. The 2' wide, 20' long canoe held three passengers, a driver at the stern, and a poleman in the bow.

Rain came down in torrents, soaking us to the skin -- even ponchos were of no avail. Fortunately it hot so it was not uncomfortable. There were many rapids as the chocolate-brown river -- the extensive logging in the interior has greatly increased soil erosion -- left the lake. Our outboard motor was just powerful enough to counter the current in one especially swift and narrow rapid. Passed the Iban boarding school. which accounts for the absence of school-age children at the longhouse.

We were greeted by the chief, 62 years old, with designs tattooed on his shoulders and back. Traditionally the Iban do not shake hands with visitors, but today shaking hands has become highly acceptable. We shook hands.

The longhouse is a condo-like "city" of 34 not necessarily related families, with a chief, shaman, etc., for each longhouse. About 150 yards long, the longhouse itself has a hall on one side, while the other is divided into rooms about 20 feet wide and 50 feet long. It is made of bamboo with mats on the floor and metal, bark and bamboo walls. The toilet, shower (consisting of a bucket), and wash basin are on the outside edge of the rooms. The toilet is oriental style with paper and a flush bucket. There is running water. The area is clean and bug free and the floor is dry.

After a greeting in which the chief prayed to the spirits for our acceptance as guests, we were given tuak (rice wine) and rice cakes. The response on drinking tuak is "oo ha!" -- the louder, the better.

I asked Frederick, our guide, to inquire about their use of landsnails. A young man took me to his room to show me a pan containing many 3-inch freshwater snail shells. All of the empty shells had the apical whorls broken off. He would sell me the empty shells at 10 shells per ringet ($0.40) but he threw in five shells more. Guess he felt sorry for someone wanting empty snail shells. They eat the animal and crush the shell for fertilizer in the dry rice fields. The snail is an intermediate host for the lung fluke.

Ate dinner in the chief's room, sitting on the floor in a circle. Thebowls of rice, their staple food, are supplemented by chicken, fern fronds, spinach, bamboo shoots, tapioca leaves and pineapple spears. The beverages were tea and coke. They use their hands although silverware and water for washing hands were provided. Each diner is expected to help himself. It's best to take a small portion at first to determine if you want more.

After dinner came more tuak and tribal dances, with music by a woman striking a gong. The first dancer was a sparsely tattooed man in a headdress carrying a sword, followed by a woman in an Ikat blouse and skirt, then a warrior with a spear and wooden shield, and finally four masked figures who danced. Next it was our turn. The chief presented his headdress to one of us, who drank a glass of tuak and performed, then passed the headdress to someone else. Finally we presented our gifts of pencils and writing pads, 34 piles of them, one for each longhouse family.

The two sleeping rooms for guests consisted of a central walkway with an elevated 1' platform on either side. Mattresses and covers were placed on the platforms, with a pillow, a blanket and mosquito netting.

Woke to the crowing of roosters. After a breakfast of eggs, rice, bread and more, we watched a cock fight demonstration. The Malay do not use spurs on the feet of the cocks like the Chinese. Next was a blowgun demonstration -- a five foot tube with a sight at the top end; it is held with both hands near the mouth. I felt better with one hand halfway up the barrel as we shot at balloons. The poison for the darts, which we didn't use, is form the sap of the Ipoh Tree (Antiaris toxicaria).

The chief then took us on a nature walk, telling us how they used plants for food and medicine. The walk ended at 9:15 a.m. at the river above the large rapid. As we departed in our canoes, the chief shook hands with each of us and his last word was "Hello."