January 04, 2022

Elliptical Sportella: a small shell, but a big story

When I am in Lee County, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I usually stay on the beautiful barrier island of Sanibel, and I often go shelling at the southern end of the island of Captiva, near Blind Pass, on a beach called Turner Beach. These days I visit Sanibel and Captiva for three weeks in early December, my first visit having been in 2011.

During my visit in December of 2017, on Turner Beach I was lucky to find a left valve of a small (maximum length circa 10 mm) rare, white bivalve called the Elliptical Sportella, scientific name Basterotia elliptica. The valve that I found was chipped and not in great condition, but because it is a rare and interesting species which was previously unknown from the area, the Sanibel Shell Museum curator, Dr. José Leal, wrote a small column about the valve three years later, in 2020:


My 1917 iNat observation of the same shell is here -- and yes, in reality this valve does have a hole in the middle of it, a hole which had been touched-up in José's photograph of the valve, but which is left visible in my photos:


I was able to recognize the identity of this shell because I was fortunate enough to have found one valve of the species quite some years ago, long before I started recording observations on iNat. That was on a small beach outside the capital of the island of Nevis, part of the country of St. Kitts & Nevis, in the Leeward Islands, West Indies.

The Elliptical Sportella is in the same genus as another small white bivalve called the Square Sportella, Basterotia quadrata. That species is also quite uncommon, but not nearly as rare as its sister species. I also know the Square Sportella from having found that species on Nevis. And in December 2015 and 2016, I found a few valves of the Square Sportella on Turner Beach, another new species for the area. I also found several more valves this past December.

In 2020, Dr. José Leal wrote a note about my Square Sportella valves from 2015 and 2016 here:


Both these little clam species are called "Sportellas" because they used to be in the family Sportellidae, and the genus Sportella. The family they are in now is known as Basterotiidae, named after the genus Basterotia. The family Basterotiidae is in the bivalve order Galeommatida, along with another two families: Lasaeidae and Galeommatidae. All of the bivalves in the order Galeommatida are small white clams that most shellers are hardly familiar with at all.

When I visited Sanibel and Captiva in April/May of 2021, Turner Beach was closed for several weeks during a major rebuilding of the jetty and a restoration of the areas surrounding the parking lot, which had suffered severely from erosion and from too much random human use. But fortunately for me, in December of 2021, when I visited Sanibel and Captiva again, Turner Beach was open and fully accessible.

No shell piles formed at the Turner Beach jetty while I was visiting this past December, so instead I spent a lot of time examining small, sparse lines of drift shells, stretching from about one quarter mile north of the jetty, to about two miles north of the jetty. I wear good-quality knee and elbow pads made of neoprene with gel inserts, so that when I notice promising-looking patches and Iines of small beach-drift shells, I can get down on my knees and elbows to crawl along, searching really closely, and wearing magnifying reading glasses.

I carry a quart freezer-quality ziplock bag, and also a two-ounce plastic flip-top vial filled with tap water. The tap water is there so that that any small shell that I try to put into the two-ounce vial drops easily off the surface of my finger. I also bring along a very small 2 ml plastic flip-top vial for any interesting shell I might find that is really microscopic in size.

My hunting for interesting small shells went very well on every visit I made to Turner Beach in December 2021. I was able to find quite a lot of rarities of various species. And on December 9th 2021, at about 4:40pm, I found an adult-sized left valve of the Elliptical Sportella in good shape. I was very happy to see it.


And on December 14th 2021, at about 4 pm, I found an adult-sized right valve of the Elliptical Sportella in extremely good shape. I was super happy then, and I knew that Jose Leal would be very happy too.


José was indeed happy when I brought all my batches of great little shells into the museum to give them to the collection.

Posted on January 04, 2022 22:19 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 2 observations | 4 comments | Leave a comment

January 03, 2022

January 2nd trip to Inwood Hill Park, fungi, snails & slugs, moss

Thanks to the New York Mycological Society, there was an outing to Inwood Hill Park yesterday. My old friend Caterina Verde (whom I first met 40 years ago when we were both living in a loft building on Leonard Street in Tribeca) picked me up on my block and drove me up to Inwood Hill. We spent about 3 hours there until our energy ran out. It was my first visit to that park, so I was totally psyched.

The weather was very warm and dampish, in the low 50s, as it has been now for several weeks, and therefore it was very good weather for fungi. I also asked the NYMS members if they would please look out for snails and slugs, because, in the process of searching for fungi, I knew they would be turning over dead wood, and therefore they would be very likely to find terrestrial gastropods.

As per usual for me, I found several fungi that are plant pathogens. Of course all of us found a lot of "regular" fungi. It turned out that many of the species of regular fungi I found were species that I had seen before elsewhere (Randalls Island and Central Park), but nevertheless, several species I observed were entirely new to me:

Cramp Balls
Warlocks Butter
Witches Butter
Crimped Gill
Auricularia angiospermarum
Little Nest Polypore

I also found an attractive and new-to-me species of moss. This moss was very distinctive-looking, which was a pleasant surprise, as so many mosses are impossible for a beginner to ID:

Common Pocket-Moss, Fissidens taxifolius

As for the mollusks, altogether we found one land-snail species and four land-slug species, thanks to so much generous help in searching by so many of the NYMS members:

Discus rotundatus, the Round Snail
Agriolimax reticulatus, the Milky Slug
Limax maximus, the Leopard Slug -- the first time I have encountered live specimens of that species in NYC
Arion hortensis, the Garden Arion -- orange sole
Hortensis-group Arion Slugs -- juveniles, but the foot mucus was colorless
Mesarion sp. -- the first time I have found Mesarion in the US

And one person found a cluster of gastropod eggs inside a decaying log. The eggs were somewhat large, so I suspect they were from Limax maximus.

All in all I had a wonderful time. It was really great to spend all that time with Caterina and the NYMS folks, and wonderful to visit Inwood Hill Park for the first time.

Posted on January 03, 2022 14:00 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 36 observations | 5 comments | Leave a comment

December 15, 2021

On the leaderboards for December, three years running?

I had forgotten that last year and the year before in December I was on the worldwide leaderboards for the most observations and the most species in that month.

We are only halfway through December right now, but it looks as though I may make those leaderboards again this year.


Also it looks as though I will pass 100,000 observations in a few days time.

All good stuff.

Posted on December 15, 2021 00:11 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 48 observations | 11 comments | Leave a comment

December 14, 2021

Fancy shells from Turner Beach, Captiva, on the Gulf Coast of Southwestern Florida

I have been in Sanibel, Florida, for two weeks now, and will be here another week. The weather has been very calm indeed, which is pleasant, but not great for shelling.

I have visited a number of the local beaches, both on-island and off-island.

Turner Beach, at the southern tip of the island of Captiva, across a small bridge from Sanibel, has aways been one of my favorites. I find it to be great for finding rarities, especially the smaller species.

Yesterday in a two-hour visit, I walked northwards along the beach, following a small, very narrow trail of washed-up shells. It looked not at all promising, but here is a list of the rare and overlooked species that I found. Sometimes I knelt down on elbows and knees to search through what looked to me like promising patches of very small shells.

Barbatia domingensis -- one valve

Divalinga quadrisulcata -- one valve

Callucina keenae -- four valves

Americardia keenae -- one valve

Basterotia quadrata -- one valve

I also found one valve of Arcopsis adamsi, but it somehow that valve did not make it home with me, and also, sad to say, I did not photograph it in situ.

And also I am listing two species that are more abundant (not rare) but which are usually overlooked:

Cavalinga trisulcata -- seven valves

Ervilia concentrica more than 25 valves

As a curiosity, I have added in an image of a small but cute colony of bryozoans, Discoporella umbellata.


Posted on December 14, 2021 15:02 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 8 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

September 28, 2021

Governors Island, once military, then coastguard, but now lots of nature!

I have now been to Governors Island (part of New York County) five times, and I am finding it to be a very interesting and rewarding place to go iNatting.

Governors Island is an 172-acre island situated between Brooklyn and the tip of lower Manhattan. The original island is the northern part, a large chunk of which is now a National Monument, including Fort Jay (1794) and Castle Williams (1811). The lower half of Governors Island was created during 1901 to 1912, using landfill, and recently three artificial hills have been built near the southern tip of the island for the entertainment of the public.

The island was decommissioned as a military base in 1966. Then it was finally decommissioned as a coast guard base in 1996. It was first opened to the public in 2005. It is accessed via ferries. I go there using the ferry that leaves from the attractive antique terminal building which is just north of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

Every time I have visited Governors Island I have been able to find new "lifers" (species I have never seen before), something that has become very difficult for me to achieve in my familiar areas, such as Randall's Island and Central Park.

I am not quite sure why Governors Island has so much interesting biodiversity, especially because it basically does not have any truly wild areas, but perhaps is partly due to the absence of human residents for well over twenty years.

I will be going back as often as I can (assuming there are still some days when the weather is warm and sunny) before the end of October, when the ferry traditionally ceases to run.

Here I have included some photos of the more common species I have found, as well as a few of my "lifers".

If anyone has any questions that I may be able to answer, please go ahead and ask me.

Posted on September 28, 2021 13:41 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 36 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

August 27, 2021

I visited many NYC places that were on my summer's bucket list

So I had a list of places where I wanted to go iNatting this summer in NYC. I managed to cross them all of my list, or nearly all of them. This despite a lot of ongoing pain in my left foot which limits how much walking I can do each day.

Governors Island -- a superb destination -- I want to go back there several times more.

Roosevelt Island -- I got to Southpoint Park yesterday. Nothing very surprising, but interesting.

Rockaway Beach via the ferry from Wall Street -- really great -- I had a lovely time and found a number of new things.

These visits were in addition to my usual, less ambitious, destinations:

Randall's Island Park

Carl Schurz Park

Central Park at 106th Street -- the Harlem Meer, the Conservatory Garden and "Insect Hill"

Central Park at 102nd Street -- the Butterfly Gardens

Central Park at 79th Street -- the Shakespeare Garden -- I did not yet see the rabbits which Iive there.

I also hope to get back one more time to Soundview Park in the Bronx, via the ferry, before the end of summer (Sept 21st). The "Soundview" ferry stop is actually in Clason Park, not Soundview Park, which is two or three miles further north. I will attempt to take the local bus up to there the next time I go.

So, all in all I am very happy with the iNatting I have done this summer. I also got to meet fellow iNatter @zitserm, in a two-person meetup on Randall's Island, an outing which was very helpful and very interesting.


Posted on August 27, 2021 12:47 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 64 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

August 02, 2021

An outing to Randall's Island today yielded some cool observations

I spent two hours in the Freshwater Wetlands area of Randall's Island, between noon and 2 pm today. I managed to find a few new lifers, assuming I have ID'ed them correctly:


Conoytachelus fissunguis -- several of these neat-looking true weevils were deep in a flower of Swamp Rose Mallow

Jumping Bush Cricket -- just one nymph

Eutreta noveboracensis -- a very cute little fruit fly

Coenosia tigrina -- a fly with stripes and hairs

A delicate mushroom growing under a log, next time I need to smell the mushroom.


Butterflies that I saw:

Cabbage White
Zabulon Skipper
Broad-winged Skipper
Summer Azure
Eastern Tailed Blue
Red Admiral
Silver-spotted Skipper
Pearl Crescent

And a few nice other things like five-angled dodder and dodder gall weevil galls in a tree pit on 125th Street.

Posted on August 02, 2021 01:15 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 30 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 03, 2021

Personal history behind my malacology and nature study

I was born in 1948. I grew up 12 miles southeast of the center of London, England, in North Kent, where the suburbs ended and the countryside began. Each summer for two weeks my immediate family vacationed in Bideford, North Devon, where my mother was from and where my grandmother, and a vast number of other relatives lived. Devon was where I really got interested in shells, although I also studied all other aspects of nature back in Kent. I collected a lot of shells, but I am sorry to say that my mother threw away some of my boxes of shells over the years.

When I was 19, I was living in Cambridge, England, and I got married to a PhD student in Organic Chemistry. In 1970, we both moved to La Jolla in Southern California, where he had been awarded a Post Doctoral Fellowship at the Salk Institute. In California I got a lot deeper into shells, and started writing papers about them. My first husband helped me learn more about fossils, and about how to research and write the papers we co-authored. In return I taught him a lot about shells.

After 14 months in California, I went back to Cambridge, England for 5 years. Ever since the late 1960s when we met, we had done a lot of mapping of the non-marine mollusks of the British Isles for the Conch Soc of GB and Northern Island. I got a job in the Histology Department of the Physiology Lab of Cambridge University for 5 years. Then wee got separated, and I began the process of getting a divorce. I was then invited to move back to the US by an 18th century British historian, who had been offered a tenure-track position at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

After four years at Yale, my second husband-to-be and I moved to Harvard University, where he had been awarded a full professorship, the second youngest person ever to attain that. I went to work in the Malacology section of the Louis Agassiz Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. After a couple more years, we split up. I moved briefly to Ithaca, and then to New York City, where I lived at several different addresses downtown.

In 1988, I started a live-in relationship with Ed Subitzky, a cartoonist and humor writer who had a day job in advertising. We soon started vacationing in the Caribbean. For about five years of visits we went to Mustique, a private island in the Grenadines, and then, after that, we started going to Nevis, Leeward Islands.

In the spring of 2000, after Hurricane Lenny, aka "Wrong-way Lenny", had brushed Nevis in November of 1999, I discovered that the island had developed a very small, but very rich, shell beach, and because of that I really got into Caribbean seashells in a major way. Over the following years Ed and I gradually started staying longer on Nevis, eventually for as long as four weeks on each visit. As well as visiting Nevis's sister island, St. Kitts fairly often, whenever I happened to be on Nevis for a public holiday, I was able to take a day trip on the "Sea Hustler" ferryboat, to either Montserrat or St. Eustatius, where I would search for shells. And, partly as a result of all that research, and the papers I published on it, in 2015 I was qualified to be accepted to take part in a Dutch scientific marine biological expedition to the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius.

For several years, starting in 1999, in order to help my research, I volunteered in the Malacology section of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, and when Malacology unfortunately shut up shop, I started volunteering in Invertebrate Paleontology.

Starting in the summer of 2007, for seven years I did a great deal of work on Wikipedia as "Invertzoo". The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, knew me quite well, and referred to me as "the Snail Lady".

In 2014, I shifted the online aspect of my volunteer work over to iNaturalist, and, as time went by, I was delighted to meet and become friends with several really terrific local naturalists and biologists here in NYC.

On this webpage you can find a complete list of my science-oriented publications; they are mainly malacological, but a few are more generally nature-related, including one on moths:



Posted on July 03, 2021 14:48 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 2 comments | Leave a comment

July 02, 2021

Which birds visit my new NYC bird feeder?

I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the back of a 12-story building on the third floor. A few months ago I bought a small plexiglass bird feeder which has suction cups that hold it onto the outside of your window. I also bought some fairly fancy bird seed.

I installed the feeder close to where I sit at the computer, near the window. At first no birds came at all, I think because the weather was still not warm then, and there were very few birds in the backyard.

Then when the weather warmed up, birds started to come, but our cat would sit nearby and try repeatedly to pounce on the visiting birds by trying to hurl herself through the glass of the living room window!

But then, sadly, we had to have our cat put down, because she was diagnosed with extreme chronic Kidney Failure. We miss her a lot because we loved her, but the cat being gone has made the birds' life considerably easier.

Since then, I have seen a lot more birds at the feeder. Having to take photos through the window glass and then through the plexiglass (sometimes two layers) does not give crisp image results, but the photos are better than nothing. I sometimes take bird photos morning and evening, but as yet I can't tell which individual birds are "repeats".

Here is a list of the species of birds that I have seen on the feeder so far. I will add others as I (hopefully) see more species:

Mourning Doves -- lots of them, and they sure eat a lot.
House Finches -- lots and lots of them, especially the females, but also the occasional very pretty male.
House Sparrows -- very few so far, surprisingly.
Cardinal -- Three males so far, just amazing when seen close-up. I did not get a photo of the second one. And on July 21st I got a photo of the female cardinal.
American Robin -- three so far, didn't get a photo in the feeder yet, but one on the tree near the feeder.
Black-capped Chickadee -- one so far (July 7th at 3:23 pm).

No Pigeons at at all as yet, and no Blue Jays either.

Our backyard has no garden in it, it's all concrete, but there is a big Ailanthus tree and a bit further east a White Mulberry, which is currently in fruit. The next yard over to the west has a lot of very tall bamboo, and the yards beyond that have several Ailanthus trees and a large-leafed Elm tree, also there is a young Princess Tree.

Posted on July 02, 2021 21:18 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 20 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

June 02, 2021

How to find small and tiny seashells to increase both your species count and iNat's species count


In response to this recent iNat post:


I suggested that iNat observers could find a lot of additional species of shelled marine mollusks to add to the iNat named species total if people who are beachcombing tried to find more of the small and tiny shells.

It seems that most people only pick up shells that are about an inch in diameter, or larger than that. I suppose that is because they shell by walking along the beach until a shell catches their eye.

Instead I would recommend that people check the drift lines, the wrack lines on a beach, until they see a patch or a line that appears to have mostly small stuff in it, even though some of that might be broken fragments of shells and other detritus, rather than whole shells.

Pay particular attention to the surface of sandy beaches near jetties and piers, where the sea water tends to form eddies. Eddies are often the place where waves drop the smallest stuff they are carrying. Flat areas of a beach at mid-tide or low-tide level are often promising places to look for patches of small shells. Sometimes the sediment on the bottom surface of a tide pool or rockpool can be good too.

If you see a patch of fine detritus on the beach that you think might be worthy of investigation, kneel down or sit down, and take a closer look.

You can pick up the small and tiny shells and drop them into a suitable container. I like to use a plastic flip-top vial. If I am finding extremely tiny shells, I fill that vial with water -- that way even a very tiny shell (2 or 3 mm) will drop down into the water instead of remaining stuck to my finger when I try to add it to the vial.

Another collecting method is to simply scoop up all of the possibly relevant material, and put it into a ziplock snack bag. This material can be washed, dried, and sorted at home at your leisure -- so-called armchair collecting.

I myself wear neoprene knee and elbow pads with gel inserts when I do a lot of searching for tiny shells. That way I can kneel, and when necessary crawl, for hours on end, day after day, without scraping the skin off of my knees and elbows. And I use magnifying reading glasses to help me see the smallest shells.

While it is true that you are likely to find some small juveniles of larger shells, you are also likely to find a lot of species which never reach an adult size that is larger than half an inch, a quarter of an inch, or even smaller still.

If you happen to know a scuba diver, you may want to ask the diver if he or she would scoop you up a small ziplock bag of sediment from a quiet place that is likely to have a lot of small species, such as under a kelp bed, or off of the end of a coral reef. Those places can be very rich in tiny species.

Storing the tiny species of shells requires small glass vials or tiny plastic boxes and small slips of rag paper. Small shells can be stored in very small ziplocks that are 2 inches by one inch or 3 by 2 inches.

If you end up getting deep into this area of knowledge, you will find you need some good magnification at home. A good light and a head-mounted magnifier, a standing magnifier, or possibly even a binocular microscope may come to seem like a necessity.

With some notable exceptions, the literature on the super tiny shells, which are often known as micromollusks, can be sparse and sometimes hard to obtain. Many popular books don't include any or many micromollusks.

Shells a bit larger than micros are often known as "minis". I however don't like that term, as these are not miniature shells, but simply small species.

If you have any questions about this or similar subjects, feel free to ask me.

Posted on June 02, 2021 16:22 by susanhewitt susanhewitt | 25 comments | Leave a comment