Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 18, 1997

Richard Goldberg's "extreme"
travel: Seeking
"Ceram" Shells In

Richard Goldberg
Special to The Gazette
I've never been one to pass up an opportunity for some "extreme" travel. So when my friend, Mike Severns, of Maui, Hawaii, kept badgering me to join him on one of his frequent photographic assignments to Indonesia, I finally relented.

Mike is a world-renowned underwater photographer and biologist. I am a television writer/producer at the Applied Physics Laboratory and an amateur conchologist. For the past year, we have been collaborating on a series of conchological articles and presentations delineating variations found in the beautifully colored and patterned land shells of eastern Indonesia.

This often overlooked group of invertebrates is the cousin of the seashell-carrying marine, or ocean, mollusks. The brightly colored and bizarre-shaped shells of the terrestrial mollusks from tropical latitudes have recently been gaining the attention of biologists and naturalists. The shell color and pattern display an evolutionary moment in time that reveals more about how a species evolves in an insular environment.

Unfortunately, the often static lifestyles of snails are usually not the focus of television nature documentaries or books. But for Mike and me, a shared interest in land shells and a desire to experience a dose of adventure were motivation enough to travel to the Maluku region of eastern Indonesia for a few weeks this past spring.

The idea of traveling to Seram was not a recent pipe dream for me. Almost 20 years ago I happened upon a 100-year-old conchological collection that contained many exotic shells from around the world, including one very unusual, walnut-size land shell wrapped in a slip of paper with the locality "Ceram" scribbled across it. Even though drab in color, the shell's odd shape, different from anything I had ever seen before, piqued my curiosity--more so than any of the other 50 or so land shells that inhabit Seram. Digging into the conchological literature I came up with little, if any information about this species, other than the Latin name, Chloritis ungulina, described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The original shells that Linnaeus used to describe the species were probably brought back as novelties to Europe by the Portuguese and Dutch spice traders who first plied the waters of the Moluccas in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Along for the expedition was friend, fellow nature lover and adventure junky, Lisbeth Barkholt, a liver-transplant surgeon from Stockholm. Our travels followed in the footsteps of British naturalist and evolutionist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace, a Charles Darwin prot‚g‚, who came up with his own independent theory of evolution and ideas on natural selection using the Maluku region (the Moluccas) as his Galapagos Islands. In The Malay Archipelago Wallace wrote about his often dangerous eight-year sojourn in the Moluccas, riddled with misfortunes, illness and deception, yet he was still able to wax eloquent about the extraordinary wildlife and beauty of the islands. In the eight years that Wallace explored these islands in the 1850s, he found a place teeming with birds, insects, fish and mollusks, many new to science. Biologists now refer to this region as Wallacea.

Influenced by Wallace's almost mystical descriptions of beauty among the flora and fauna of the Moluccas, Mike, Lisbeth and I were eager to photograph and study the rich Papuan-Australian-influenced molluscan fauna east of the Wallace Line.

The Maluku region is situated in the center of the volcanically volatile "Ring of Fire." The islands are home to the endangered Bird of Paradise. The flora, fauna, geology and even people of the Moluccas are quite diverse. Less than 2 million of Indonesia's almost 200 million people live scattered among these islands. Our primary destination in the fabled Spice Islands was Seram (Ceram in old literature), the largest of the thousand or so emerald colored islands strung through the vivid blue seas between Sulawesi (the Celebes) and Irian Jaya, western New Guinea.

Seram can only be reached aboard a 100-passenger twin-engine speed boat, or by a slower ferry via Ambon, the capital of the Maluku province. We opted for the faster hour-and-40-minute speed boat ride. As the boat skimmed across the deep dark-blue waters between Tulehus, on Ambon's Hitu Peninsula, and Amahai, Seram's largest town on the south shore, this modern vessel seems totally out of place as we approached this rural and mysterious island. Flying over Seram en route to Ambon earlier in the week, we saw a rugged, mountainous island, deeply cut with fog-shrouded valleys, and blanketed with a thick, foreboding, almost impenetrable jungle. Small, scattered villages hug the coastline in the shadow of tall looming mountainous peaks. Wallacean images of exotic land shells and soaring rainbow-colored butterflies danced around in my mind.

Much like Wallace, it was my goal on this trip to find this and other species in situ. The ability to converse in Bahasa Indonesian was an essential skill since virtually no English is spoken here. Acting as a translator, Mike asked villagers along the coastal roads whether they had ever seen the mysterious "Ceram" shell. Showing them a picture of Chloritis ungulina was not helpful, since they could not relate a two-dimensional picture to three-dimensional objects. We soon found out that finding this endemic mollusk would not be an easy task. Some of the villagers thought we were looking for rocks! Others thought they may have seen the shell, but could not be more specific as to where we should look. It was eventually determined that we would need to go inland away from the coast.

During the next few days, with a local driver and four-wheel drive vehicle, we set out to explore the rain forests west and east of Masohi, a small town on the south central coast with a population of about 40,000. Traversing Seram is extremely difficult. The island stretches over 300 kilometers, and what few paved roads exist are limited to the coast along the western half of the island. There are no roads in the east. The only route into the rugged eastern interior is to drive up stream beds into the high-canopy forests. Along the coast we drove along dirt roads through small villages. Outside the many one-room thatched-walled dwellings, cloves dry along roadsides on large sheets of hand-woven cloth. During the years of European exploration, adventurous merchants endured many hardships to reach the Spice Islands, lured by the riches of cloves and nutmeg indigenous to this region. Stories of exotic wildlife also filtered back to Europe. Heading inland we immediately encountered a plethora of exotic insects, butterflies and reptiles first seen by Wallace and his predecessors.

The extraordinary color variations of Nanina citrina, a two-inch helical-shaped land mollusk, were gathered and brought to us by the local Seramese children. We also photographed a variety of land mollusks crawling across rocks and leaves. But we still had not found the mysterious "Ceram" snail that we were told might inhabit the remote, inaccessible and mysterious eastern half of the island.

Even today, a veil of mystery and superstition shrouds the eastern half of Seram. This area is inhabited by an indigenous Seramese people called the Naulu, or Alfur people, who are said to possess magical powers that allow them to fly in visitors to their remote land on the wings of the tribe's mystical powers. Without roads, and after a bone-jarring drive inland over a rock-strewn stream bed, being magically transported between the coast and the deep forest might have seemed welcome. Once feared as warriors and hunters with rituals of beheading, the Naulu now live peacefully off of the island's mountainous interior, removed from contact with the outside world. They are still revered by their Ambonese neighbors who consider Seram as the "Nusa Inam," or Mother Island.

The Seramese people we encountered were extremely curious and immensely helpful. Wherever we explored, the local children became our shadows, helping us find extraordinary wildlife to photograph and study, most of which they consider commonplace. They enjoyed mimicking our strange terms: "Wow! Look at that!" Their more cautious parents were immediately willing participants when we offered to pay the children a few thousand rupiah, the local currency equivalent to a couple of dollars, to help us track deeper into the rain forest. Some of them had never seen people from outside Seram. Their excitement and enthusiasm were contagious.

The next day, now comfortable with our presence, the local men made a late night effort to find some land shells for us in their village along the stream. The next morning they brought us a small cloth sack with some snails to inspect. To my surprise and delight, their efforts yielded the elusive "Ceram" shell, Chloritis ungulina. Twenty years after I first unwrapped the dusty and faded shell in the old conchological collection, I now was standing among the native forest of this species. It must not have been too much different a century earlier.

Richard Goldberg is a writer/producer in Television Productions at the Applied Physics Laboratory.

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