Small heath snails
Small heath snails – major questions: Initial attempts to clarify the situation of Helicopsis striata in Austria
The older malacological literature differentiates three species of the genus Helicopsis in Austria: the Striped heath snail Helicopsis striata (O. F. Müller 1774), the “Hungarian” heath snail Helicopsis hungarica (Soos & Wagner 1935) and the Austrian heath snail Helicopsis austriaca Gittenberger 1969, whereby the latter two were subsequently downgraded to subspecies of Helicopsis striata. All three forms are characteristic inhabitants of relict sites with open, sparse vegetation – a highly endangered habitat in Austria. The subspecies austriaca is listed in Appendix II of the Habitats Directive, and the validity of the subspecies hungarica is questioned by some authors. For these reasons, and because it remains unclear whether the populations in Seewinkel belong to the latter or represent an independent taxon, a project was initiated to re-map and phylogenetically investigate the Austrian populations of Helicopsis striata.
The first results of a molecular analysis (short segment of the mitochondrial COI-genes) showed that the three subspecies can be clearly differentiated. Moreover, during the course of the project, all three subspecies of heath snails were also found alive on sites where they had been thought to have become extinct. This may partially reflect improved dry grassland management in recent years. In a next step, comprehensive genetic, shell- and genital-morphological investigations are planned, accompanied by additional collections. A special focus will be on the distribution of Helicopsis striata austriaca, endemic to Lower Austria, and the affiliation of the populations in Seewinkel. The project is funded by the provincial governments of Lower Austria and Burgenland.[Fotos: A. Mrkvicka]