It was a chilly day in late February when Kevin Cummings found an unexpected package in his mailbox: an advance copy of his new book, Freshwater Mollusks of the World: A Distribution Atlas.
Nearly four years earlier, snail expert Chuck Lydeard had contacted Kevin to see if he would be interested in helping compile the atlas. Lydeard’s vision was to create the first comprehensive summary of systematic and biodiversity information on the world’s 43 freshwater mollusk (snail, mussel, and clam) families.
As a renowned expert on freshwater mussels, Lydeard thought Kevin—an Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) scientist and curator of mollusks—would make a great co-author.
Lydeard and Kevin dove into the project feet first.
They brought together 45 mollusk experts from around the world to assemble information on species diversity, evolutionary relationships, geographic distribution, conservation status, and more for each family.
“We had people from Japan, South America, lots of Europeans. Language didn’t seem to be a barrier because most of them speak English, so it was just a matter of keeping on people to make sure they got their stuff in on time. Most of them were very good about it,” said Kevin.
In addition to coordinating with authors, Kevin co-wrote seven of the mollusk and clam chapters in the book with his long-time research colleague and INHS affiliate Daniel Graf, a professor at University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.
Seeing that first copy of the book made all his efforts worthwhile.
“I’m not going to lie. It was a good feeling,” Kevin said. “It’s nice to have the physical book in hand, and I carried it around for a couple days, showing it to people.”
Freshwater Mollusks of the World: A Distribution Atlas is now available for purchase.
Finishing the atlas may have taken four years, but the knowledge needed to contribute to it has been a lifetime in the making.
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By age six, Kevin was a lover of natural history.
The Field Museum’s dioramas and dinosaurs drew him in, while the “prairie” across the street from his suburban Chicago home beckoned him to catch everything he could find—from snakes to butterflies.
Years later, Kevin attended junior college and eventually transferred to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (SIU-C), where he chose to major in zoology—a subject he’d always enjoyed and done well in.
A bachelor’s degree led to a master’s degree in zoology, and soon Kevin was working with SIU advisor Brooks Burr, a fish biologist and former INHS researcher, on the life history of the mud darter, a small fish that inhabits ditches, rivers, and lowland lakes across Illinois.
Kevin graduated in 1983, and was immediately hired to work at the Illinois Natural History Survey on the Illinois Fish and Wildlife Information System (IFWIS) under the direction of the late INHS scientist Warren Brigham and INHS fish collection curator Larry Page.
Kevin spent his days scouring the literature for life history information on Illinois fishes to add to the IFWIS database. He also helped Page sort and catalog incoming fish specimens; this required handwriting specimen information in large ledgers and creating specimen labels with a typewriter.
“I was managing the fish collection for a few years when Larry said, ‘Well there’s a bunch of shells up in the attic of this building and maybe you’d want to do something with that.’ And so I did,” Kevin said.
Armed with a copy of Paul Parmalee’s 1967 book The Fresh-water Mussels of Illinois, Kevin learned to identify mussels as he sorted through thousands of specimens packaged in old Sherwin-Williams paint boxes. Max Matteson, a professor at the University of Illinois, had collected these specimens during the 1950s across northern and central Illinois.
“I think it's a good way to learn—actually sorting and handling large numbers of specimens—because you get a feel for age and size variation,” Kevin explained.
Together with Page, Kevin applied for funds in the 1980s to repeat some of Max Matteson’s mussel surveys, approximately 30 years after the original surveys were completed.
“And then it just took off,” said Kevin. “It was kind of a left-hand turn, but mussels have a fish-host relationship so there was an interest there, and I was interested in general aquatic ecology.”
Kevin became the official curator of the INHS mollusk collection in 1986.
Under his direction, the INHS mollusk collection has continued to grow through statewide mussel surveys, donations for other governmental and non-governmental agencies, and the transferral of the University of Illinois Museum of Natural History mollusk collection to INHS in 2007.
“There was no real collection here when I started, and then we started cataloguing stuff and now we have over a half million specimens in over 95,000 lots. We’re one of the top 20 largest collections in North America,” Kevin said.
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Kevin has spent over 30 years studying mollusks.
“Right now I’m at the point [in my career] where I have a lot of freedom to do things I want to do. It’s finding the money to do them that’s the challenge these days,” he said. “But I like working in collections, and being able to automate data so that it’s available to the wider community.
One highlight of Kevin’s career is his work with collaborator Daniel Graf on the MUSSEL Project (MUSSELp)—an online, open-access specimen-based database that features taxonomic and geographic range information for freshwater mussel species from around the world.
Kevin, Dan, and their colleagues have traveled to 20 museums around the world so far to photograph mussel specimens and their corresponding data labels for MUSSELp.
The researchers have focussed their digitizing efforts on primary types—specimens that served as the reference material when a species was first named and described. That said, Kevin and Graf did digitize all specimens collected in regions of the world where they had active projects (Mexico, South America, Africa, and Australia, for example).
Once they returned from a museum visit, Kevin and Dan would transcribe the locality data from the label into the database and if possible, assign latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates to the database. In some cases that wasn’t as easy as it may sound, particularly for older material.
“We try to find that place on a map, but if you’re in Berlin looking at a specimen collected in central Africa in 1880, written in German script of a place that may or may not exist anymore it’s kinda tricky,” Kevin explained. “So you spend a lot of time, and you learn a lot about geography.”
Thanks to Kevin and Graf’s efforts, MUSSELp contains about 30,000 digital images and associated data of mussel specimens.
“This has been a handy resource for the community. It’s been well worth it,” Kevin said. “It’s been an ongoing project, and it’s fun because we get to go to Europe and look at all the museum collections.”
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Travel has been an integral (and awesome) part of Kevin’s career.
Kevin’s work on MUSSELp and other related projects has led to numerous trips to places around the world, and not just to museums.
“We went to Zambia a couple times and then we went to the Congo one time, which was pretty hairy,” Kevin said. “Zambia was great. We were with a guy who was a native south African and he said it was the best wildlife viewing he’d ever seen.”
The Congo trip was much more difficult. The 13-person research team traveled in two pickup trucks (that seated six) piled high with gear along virtually non-existent roads to reach their quarry: fish and mussels.
“It took us eight hours to go 50 kilometers. I mean we were basically walking,” said Kevin.
Kevin has also been able to visit the vibrant clear waters of the Xingu River in Brazil—one of the most amazing rivers he’s ever been on.
“The biggest challenge when you travel to some of these places is not knowing the language. Fortunately we’re traveling with people who do have those skills,” Kevin said.
On his most recent adventure, Kevin sampled the turquoise blue waters of the Valles River in Mexico in search of the Texas hornshell, a mussel species that was under consideration for listing as a federally endangered species.
Five populations of the Texas hornshell are currently known in the United States, but it had been reported that a large portion of the species’ geographic range was actually in Mexico.
“In order to be federally endangered, you need to be endangered throughout your known range, not just in the portion that’s in the United States,” Kevin explained.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tasked Kevin and his colleagues to determine whether or not the mussel in Mexico was the Texas hornshell or a different species.
Anson A. Hinkley, a malacologist from Rockford, Illinois had visited many of the same locations in the Valles River Basin in Mexico 100 years previously.
“I’d been wanting to do this trip to follow up Hinkley’s work for decades, and then this project fell into our hands,” Kevin said.
Despite the beauty of the Valles River and their campground beside it, the trip was far from a vacation. The research team spent their days collecting mussels and their nights processing and photographing the specimens.
“We had to buy Oso Negro vodka to put our specimens in. You can’t transport alcohol with you down there because it’s too heavy and it’s just problematic to do that,” Kevin explained.
The research team returned to the United States and compared the DNA of the Mexican look-alike mussel against that of the Texas hornshell.
The final verdict: the Mexican species and the Texas hornshell were completely different genetically.
As a result of the team’s work, the Texas hornshell was placed on the endangered species list in February 2018 and the research team will be describing the Mexican population as a new species this year.
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Being a scientist in today’s world is not all fun findings and travels, though; it has its frustrations.
Like many other scientists, Kevin believes that it’s hard for people to fully comprehend pressing environmental issues and the impact scientific research can have when they are lacking a foundational understanding of biology—one that they should have gotten in school.
“I just don’t think that a lot of people have a good background in biology,” Kevin said “Now it seems in the United States that you only pick up that information when you’re in college, if you choose that area.”
The good news is that there are a lot of students interested in pursuing advanced degrees in natural history.
When Kevin has given talks on his research and travels, students in the audience have often asked how they can land a science career, particularly one that provides opportunity to travel.
“I always tell them, if you want to go into biology like this, don’t study largemouth bass or white-tailed deer, because it’s been done ten thousand times. Pick a group that’s nobody’s working on, and you can make a valuable contribution to that field,” said Kevin.
That said, Kevin feels that the most important thing is pursue your passion, regardless of what it is.
“Find a field that you’re interested in. Don’t pick something just because you can get a job doing it,” said Kevin. “I love coming to work everyday because I like what I do. And that’s a gift.”
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