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Shell size and shape in Madeiran land snails: do niches remain unfilled?

Biological Journal of the Linnean Society
Oxford University Press
Publication Date
  • Shell Size
  • Shell Shape
  • Land Snail
  • Madeira


Abstract The distribution of shell heights and diameters in the mainly endemic Madeiran land snail fauna shows the bimodal pattern of high- and low-spired shells found in many other faunas. Field and laboratory studies show that shell shape is associated with the angle of substrate on which the snails crawl; as elsewhere, tall spired species use vertical surfaces or burrow in soft material. Flattened species predominate on horizontal surfaces, while globular species are less specific in their preferences. Detailed comparisons with the fauna of N.W. Europe show that the proportion of high-spired species in the Madeiran fauna is low, and large high-spired species associated with vertical surfaces are very few in number despite an apparent abundance of suitable habitats. Amongst low-spired species, one family, the Helicidae, dominates the Madeiran fauna. While the overall distribution of size in these species is much as in Europe, Madeiran helicids extend into smaller size classes than do those in Europe, and they appear to fill a gap in the scatter created by the absence of other families. Non-endemic species, other than those strictly associated with man-made environments, are generally small in size. In the upper scatter, their size distribution parallels that of endemics, but in the lower scatter they constitute the whole of the smallest size classes. The role of interspecific competition in determining these distributions is discussed. The range of helicid sizes is compatible with a relaxation of competition or predator pressure relative to other areas, but in the upper scatter there appear to be gaps in the range of size and shape expected despite a long period in which the fauna could evolve. This could indicate the existence of adaptive troughs blocking, or delaying, radiation over the full spectrum of size and shape.

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