At Home With: Tim Pearce | At Home With ... | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

At Home With: Tim Pearce

click to enlarge Tim Pearce doing field work in California last summer, sieving leaf litter looking for tiny snails - TIM PEARCE
Tim Pearce
Tim Pearce doing field work in California last summer, sieving leaf litter looking for tiny snails
Everybody is dealing with COVID-19 quarantines and restrictions in different ways. While there's no single right way to cope — social distancing and staying TF home aside — connecting with friends, family, and neighbors is a good place to start. You can contact your loved ones on your own, but you might also be curious how your favorite strangers in Pittsburgh are coping, so Pittsburgh City Paper is reaching out once a day to artists, activists, workers, and makers to see how they're doing.

Today, it's Tim Pearce, curator of collections and head of Section of Mollusks at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He is also a TikTok "shell-ebrity" known for mollusk-inspired puns.

When I reached out for this profile, you said that the shutdown hasn't affected you much in your day-to-day routine, which is usually my first question. So, even if it hasn't changed much, what is your day-to-day routine like now?
My typical day before the shutdown involved working in the collection more than half my time, which I don’t do now, so that is different, but now I spend a greater proportion of my time on research (analyzing data and writing papers), plus a fair amount of answering emails and other things. Last week, I was heavily involved in the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge (photographing organisms, then identifying snail pictures by others).

What piece of art/book/TV/music is bringing you comfort/inspiration at this time?
I’m enjoying an amusing book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real World Problems by Randall Munroe. Like standing on drones to change a light bulb. Full of fascinating facts and makes me laugh.

Is there an object/specimen at work that you've connected with more since the shutdown began?
I have some live snails that I brought home so I could care for them during the shutdown. Most of them are adults, but I have some tiger snails that I got as babies from Michigan many years ago. They grew up and laid eggs and I am now raising those babies. Some of the babies are nearly the size of the adults, so maybe they’ll start having babies, too. It’s exciting to see them proliferating. I better start saving for their college education.

Given your expertise, I thought I'd ask a few questions about mollusks. What kind of viruses do mollusks get? What are the symptoms? What effects do they have?
I am not familiar with snail viruses, but I am sure there are some. I speculate that every species has viruses. I remember reading about warts on the head of some snails, but I don’t remember whether they were caused by viruses (human warts are). On the subject of other diseases, there was a snail venereal disease described more than 100 years ago from three species of snails. But wait, given that snails mate with their own species, then each species should have their own species of that venereal disease. A biologist from Washington State asked me to send him those species (I could only find two of the three) and he described a new species of snail venereal disease, and the type locality (the place where the type specimen is from) is Powdermill Nature Reserve (the Museum’s Field Station).

Do mollusks have a version of "sheltering in place" and if so, for what purpose and how long?
When snails encounter dry weather, they pull into their shells and wait for moisture to return. They seal around the edge with mucus to help keep their moisture in. Snails in the desert can survive many weeks or even years hunkered down, then when it rains, they come out and dance and eat and mate.

Not sure if this is what you are asking, but I published a study about whether slugs like to aggregate. Sometimes I find these slugs clustered together under bark. I wondered if (a) they like being together, or (b) that was where the shelter was so they all squeezed in there together. In my experiments, I gave them enough shelters, and I determined that they didn’t care whether another slug was under the shelter, so I guess they are not social.

click to enlarge Tim Pearce doing field work in California last summer, sieving leaf litter looking for tiny snails - TIM PEARCE
Tim Pearce
Tim Pearce doing field work in California last summer, sieving leaf litter looking for tiny snails

There's a running meme/online joke about how plants and animals are returning to nature with humans (mostly) staying at home. Assuming that the places (some) mollusks live are experiencing a reduced human presence, how would you imagine their behavior would change?
I suspect that most snails are oblivious to us as humans, although they are certainly affected by our activities. For example, the minute snails I study like undisturbed leaf duff, so they don’t live in our yards where we rake every year. I speculate that some of the larger snails might be scarce in cities and city parks because they might get trampled by our feet or by the feet of dogs. I think people are still out in the parks despite the shutdown, so I’m not sure the snails will notice a difference in the parks.

Acid rain affects lots of creatures including snails. Acid rain comes from multiple sources, including coal-fired power plants. Scrubbers and filters on power plants have cleaned up acid rain, so there is a chance that snails will start to recover. If the shutdown means less power consumption, then that could mean less acid rain, which would benefit snails.

My colleague Hannah Lynn wanted me to ask if you've ever met the creature in the image above, and if so, what you can tell us about it.
That photo is of a giant African snail, but I am not sure which species it is. I can say I have seen giant African snails, but I can’t say for sure whether I have seen that particular species. I have definitely met the species Achatina fulica (in Hawaii, and in South America) and I have seen some other giant African snails in Africa. Although they actually make nice pets, they are illegal to have in the U.S. They are federally regulated because they are serious agricultural pests, competing with us for our food. They can be eaten (I saw cans of giant African snails for sale in a market in Madagascar). Giant African snails are the largest of all the land snails.

Do you have any mollusk puns you'd like to share here? Or should we just log in to TikTok?
Here are a couple of brand new puns, never been heard before:
Where does a snail go when it needs its shell repaired? To a spe-SHELL-ist!
A very peculiarly shaped snail was said to be unu-shell (unusual).


Aren’t you gonna eat that? 🐌 ##molluskmonday

♬ original sound - carnegiemnh

What is an organization or charity you'd recommend supporting at this time?
I always advocate supporting Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife because I think we need to protect nature. Apropos of the shutdown, practically nobody has mentioned the relationship between the large size of the human population and the incidence of coronavirus, but they are clearly related, so I also support organizations like Population Connection (working to reduce the human population) and Planned Parenthood.

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