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Researching whelks in Japan: Field notes from Jann Vendetti

By UCMP grad student Jann Vendetti, June 30, 2008

Jann at the Kannonzaki Nature Museum
Jann visits the Buddhist Nittaiji Temple in Nagoya. Click the image to see an enlargement.

Sponsored by the NSF (National Science Foundation) and the JSPS (Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science), Jann is studying fossil and living whelks — a type of snail — in Japan, the home of more than one third of all extant whelks. Jann is interested in the evolution and dispersal of whelks through time and in their different modes of developmental growth. For more photos and more details of Jann's adventures in Japan, visit her blog.

I am studying the diversity and evolution of a family of marine gastropods (snails) called the Buccinidae — "Tsubu gai" in Japanese. In English, these snails are known as whelks. They have a characteristic fusiform shell shape — that is, the shell is formed like a spindle, wider in the middle and tapering toward the ends.

You might ask, why whelks? Sure, they are pretty, but there are many other good reasons to study them:

  1. In graduate school it is necessary to focus on a group of animals, or on a question about the evolution of that group, that will make a contribution to the scientific community. In other words, your project has to be something that hasn't already been figured out, summed up, or laid to rest. Though a fair amount of research has been done on whelks, many questions still remain about their ancient and recent distributions in the world's oceans, as well as their dispersal and movement throughout the world over time. In addition, a good hypothesis about the family tree of the nearly 1,000 species of these snails is only in the preliminary stages of research, so there should be much for me to add in this area as well.
  2. From my coursework as an undergraduate, I became interested in invertebrate animals with a fossil record. Invertebrates are animals without backbones (such as sponges, jellyfish, worms, and slugs). Some of these animals, or parts of them, fossilize relatively easily (like snails, clams, crabs, and sand dollars) and have left behind a good fossil record. This allows paleontologists to see a snapshot of life as it was millions of years ago, preserved in sedimentary rocks. By using fossils as data, we can piece together how different animals evolved. Because whelks' shells fossilize well, they are a good candidate for my study. Their family includes approximately 1,000 living and many extinct species. From fossils we can trace their evolutionary history back to the Cretaceous Period (~100 million years ago). And as an added bonus, whelk shell fossils are found in Cenozoic rocks (those formed within the past 65 million years) throughout the Pacific Northwest, Pacific Rim, and California — where I am based! That should make some of my research more convenient.
  3. Neptunea fukueae Siphonalia pfefferi Buccinum leucostoma Buccinum striatissimum
    Whelks from the collections at UCMP that show some of the variety in shell shape. From the left are Neptunea fukueae, Siphonalia pfefferi, Buccinum leucostoma, and Buccinum striatissimum. The shells do vary in size — they are not shown to scale.

  4. I was also interested in early development in invertebrates. In this sense, development means growth from a single cell to an adult animal. In many invertebrate animal groups there are a number of "alternate routes" to developing from a larva to a juvenile. I wanted to understand how these different developmental varieties were distributed across a related group of species. Whelks are informative in this regard because the early development "routes" in living whelks come in at least two varieties. One larval type swims out of its egg capsule then metamorphoses into a juvenile snail, while the other type metamorphoses within its egg capsule and emerges as a small crawling juvenile.

A fossil buccinid, Bruclarkia barkeriana An egg capsule of Kelletia kelletii
Click on either photo to see an enlargement. Left: A fossil buccinid, Bruclarkia barkeriana, from the Miocene of California. Right: An egg capsule of Kelletia kelletii, a buccinid with larvae that swim out of their capsule and later metamorphose into juvenile snails.

In Japan …
This summer I was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the JSPS (Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science) to study the fossil and living whelks of Japan. Japan is the place to study these animals because the Japanese Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan are home to the world's richest whelk fauna (344 species!). In fact, many whelk species are eaten as sashimi. My host in Japan, Dr. Seiji Hayashi, is a paleontologist and molecular biology specialist focusing on whelks at Nagoya University in the center of Honshu, the largest of the Japanese islands.

A group photo of this year's JSPS fellows
A group photo of this year's JSPS (Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science) fellows. That's Jann in the front row, third from the left. Click to see an enlargement.

Until the end of August, I will be analyzing and photographing fossil whelks from paleontological museum collections throughout Japan, collecting tissue samples from living whelks sold at fish markets, and sampling both fossil and recent shells for data about the snails' early development.

Map of Japan A variety of whelk for sale at a fish market in Sendai Another variety of whelk for sale at a fish market in Sendai
Nagoya University Got whelk? Here it is on the menu Whelk served up on Jann's plate
Top left: A simple map of Japan showing the location of Nagoya in relation to a few other major cities. Top center and right: A couple varieties of whelk that Jann found for sale at a fish market in Sendai. Click on these or any of the remaining photos on this page to see enlargements. Bottom left: Jann's base of operations during her stay in Japan will be Nagoya University. Bottom center: Got whelk? Here it is on the menu …. Bottom right: … and here it is on Jann's plate.

Though science is at the center of my project, it is impossible to live in a "research-only" vacuum — especially while experiencing a new culture. This is my first trip to Japan, and its people, cultural customs, and language provide profound, interesting, and sometimes frustrating parts of each day. I hope to truly integrate my research and cultural experience and share some of it with you!

A fossil buccinid, Bruclarkia barkeriana An egg capsule of Kelletia kelletii
Left: Jann with one of Japan's Shinkansen or bullet trains. They reach speeds of up to 300 kilometers (or 188 miles) per hour. Right: Jann with Buddha's Hand at the Togan-ji Temple, not far from her residence near the university.


All photos by Jann Vendetti.