This month features two of Jamaica’s best – a shell and an athlete, both genuine rarities.
The shell is Chicoreus cosmani Abbott & Finlay, 1979. This beautiful mollusc is a member of the large family of marine snails known as the Muricidae, for my money the most exquisite group of all seashells. They are favorites of collectors with rare species selling for thousands of dollars. Most are carnivores on other molluscs and barnacles and can become serious pests of commercial oyster, mussel, and clam beds. But they can be utilitarian as well. From certain species is extracted the Royal Tyrian Purple dye, so costly to make that it became the hallmark of only the very rich and powerful – Caesars and Popes – and is still today the “official” color of the Catholic Church. The dye has been in production since at least 1750 BC.
But it is unlikely Chicoreus cosmani will ever become a pest or be found in sufficient numbers to be used for dyes. Only a handful of specimens are known, all from moderately deep water, and most from a single stretch of coastline on northern Jamaica.
Jamaica has another rarity, in human form – Usain Bolt, who has the true distinction of being the fastest human alive, running at roughly Warp Factor 8 (“The legs canna take it, Captain!”). I visited his hometown of Sherwood Content in the hinterlands of Jamaica in 2013. Here is the sign his townspeople erected to him.
In 1923 W.L. Abbott collected a fragment of a land snail shell in the far-flung mountains of the Dominican Republic (DR) at a remote place called Polo*. The snail was named in 1946 Kisslingia poloensis by Paul Bartsch, the expert on the group at the time. It was not seen again for 91 years, when a collector found two specimens, after hours of looking, near the namesake village. This group of land snails, the Annulariidae, is of great interest to me, and as luck would have it, I was going to the DR in June. With my trusty colleagues we made a detour to downtown Polo. Polo can only be reached by a dirt road that winds up the mountain and then dead-ends at the village. We began looking in a roadside cut and after a long, hot, scorpion-filled, goat-laden, cacti-infested, steamy length of time we had found exactly – none. Two young gentlemen happened by and we “hired” them to help look. Rather embarrassingly, within minutes they had found two. We decided to head uphill for metropolitan Polo and promised to recompense them on the way back down. Less than a half-hour later we returned to find that an entire village had been enlisted and the kids had, probably without breaking a sweat, found 50. 50!
Pesos and snails changed hands. Everyone was happy. I now have potential DNA from this obviously seldom seen snail for comparative work on the family. Seldom seen by malacologists anyway. The kids knew exactly where to find them, probably seeing them on a daily basis. All our fancy “book lernin” was no match for the real experts, the young naturalists of Polo.
Our crew of expert collectors. Note the bag of snails.
A free-range, ultra-rare Kisslingia poloensis Bartsch, 1946.
Kisslingia poloensis Bartsch, 1946
* Somewhat confusingly there is a village called Polo Magnetico in the same area. It is renowned as one of those physics-defying places where balls apparently roll uphill. Alas, this phenomenon did not affect our van, which we almost had to push to the top.