This blog follows on from my discovery of a bird collected by the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace – a Moluccan starling. Not familiar with the name? Many people aren’t. He stands in the shadow of Charles Darwin with whom he discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection: Darwin usually receives all the credit. My blog from earlier this year gives a brief introduction to Wallace and his scientific career.

Wallace – there’s that name again

Black and white photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace sitting in a chair.

RAMM’s collections database holds over 150 years’ worth of information about the objects in the museum’s collection. Our ability to use this information relies on data quality. Transcription errors from paper records and inconsistent use of terminology makes searching difficult. So, in the slots in my calendar from postponed events due to Covid-19 I set myself the challenge of standardising how collectors are recorded in the natural sciences collection. My efforts were rewarded by coming across many interesting names. Every cloud has a silver lining.

I found a further 12 objects with the name ‘Wallace’ in their history – seven butterflies and five mollusc shells. But was this Alfred Russel Wallace? This blog looks at the shells, keep your eyes peeled for Part 3 – one butterfly in particular is very exciting!

Shells from the Malay Archipelago

Wallace spent eight years (1854 to 1862) travelling around the Malay Archipelago. He collected 7,500 marine and land shells. Among them are 125 different species, 50 of which he thought new to western science. In 1865 Wallace published a paper listing the mollusc specimens he found.

He found land snails particularly interesting. Even though the islands lie quite close together only a third of species in his collection were found on more than one island.

Planispira latizona (Pfeiffer, 1864)

1 specimen in glass-topped box. The label on the glass is in Miss Linter’s hand and reads, ‘H[elix]. latizona. Pfr.’ An ink label on the base (hand unknown) reads ‘Helix latizona Pfr. Ceram.’ An additional label in pencil reads, ‘Coll Wallace’. 1720/1909/D17/71

Wallace includes this species from Ceram (now Seram) in his paper of 1865. Seram is the largest island of Maluku province of Indonesia. Wallace made several trips to the island:

  • 31 October – 28 December 1859
  • 26 Feb – 4 April 1860
  • 2 June – 17 June 1860

It is also possible that his assistant Charles Allen collected the shell. He visited Seram from 1 July to sometime in September of 1860. For more on Allen see my previous blog. In ‘The Malay Archipelago’ Wallace describes Seram as ‘a perfect desert in zoology, although a most beautiful country’. However, he notes that ‘the only thing [he] obtained worth notice […] being a few good land shells,’ maybe this specimen was among them.

Albersia granulata (Quoy & Gaimard, 1832)

2 specimens not in an original Linter glass topped box. One specimen has the number ’59’ written in ink in the mouth of the shell. The other has a paper label pasted in the mouth that reads, ‘H[elix]. granulata. Quoy’. A loose label reads, ‘Albersia granulata. Q & G. Waegeou (Coll. Wallace)’.

Wallace lists this species from Waigiou (Waigeo) in his 1865 paper. He visited the island 4 July – 7 August 1860. While A. granulata is not a new species, Adams does propose a new genus, ‘The species granulata appears to be the type of a distinct group allied to Semicornu, for which I would propose the name Albersia.’

Planispira moluccensis (Pfeiffer, 1850)

2 specimens in a glass-topped box. The label on the glass is in Linter’s hand and reads, ‘H[elix]. moluccensis Pfr’. An ink label attached to the bottom of the box (hand unknown) reads, ‘H[elix]. Molluccensis Pfr. 1892 Aru Wallace’. Other label is by retired RAMM curator David Bolton.

Wallace lists P. moluccensis in his 1865 paper but as ‘Mysol, var’. The label on the box states the collection locality as Aru. Furthermore, Wallace returned from the Malay Archipelago in 1862, so the label date of 30 years later also raises questions over whether these shells are really associated with Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace spent seven months in the Aru Islands – 8 January – 2 July 1857

Photograph of Miss JE LinterHow Wallace’s shells came to RAMM

From time to time Wallace shipped specimens back to his London agent Samuel Stevens to care for and distribute. Wallace kept the best specimens himself. Some he reserved for entomologist William Wilson Saunders. Stevens sold the rest to fund Wallace’s continued exploration.

RAMM’s five shells arrived with Juliana Linter’s collection. She was an avid collector of shells – mostly land snail shells like these. Linter didn’t collect specimens in the field but bought and exchanged shells with collectors and dealers. She paid large sums for rare specimens. In 1909 she bequeathed her collection of over 15,000 specimens to RAMM.

It’s all about the handwriting

It is unlikely Linter purchased the Wallace shells directly from Stevens, or from the sale of Saunders’ collection in 1874. This is because most of her collection was amassed after 1890. At the time it was common for collectors to replace original labels with their own, maybe the 1892 date was simply a transcription error, we may never know.

I would be very interested to know whose the handwriting is on the bottom of the glass-topped boxes – if you recognise it (that H is quite distinctive) then please get in touch.

References

Rowson, Ben & Wood, Harriet. (2015). Shells from Alfred Russel Wallace in the National Museum of Wales. Mollusc World. 37.

Van Whye, J. & Rookmaaker, K (2013). Alfred Russel Wallace Letters from the Malay Archipelago.

Wallace, A.R. (1874). The Malay Archipelago, the land of the orang-utan and the bird of paradise : a narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature. 

Wallace, AR (1865). List of the lands shells collected by Mr. Wallace in the Malay Archipelago with descriptions of the new species by Mr. Henry Adams. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1865): 405-416