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The fine art of hunting microsnails

Beauty and sorrow in five millimeters or less

8:00am, January 12, 2016

TEENY TINY Some of the most elaborately spiked and contorted terrestrial snail shells, as on this Plectostoma concinnum, are among the smallest, 5 millimeters or less.

There’s a trick to finding new species of miniature snails: a bucket of water.

“Microsnail” is the term for the creatures with shells measuring 5 millimeters or less, sometimes much less. A species described from China, photographed perched in the eye of a needle, ranked as the world’s smallest known land snail for five days in the fall of 2015. Then the journal ZooKeys described an even smaller species, from Borneo.

“The very tiny ones you wouldn’t see even if you put your nose on the ground,” says Menno Schilthuizen, who described the Borneo miniature with colleagues. To avoid dirty noses, the researchers drop soil and leaf litter into a bucket of water, and shells float to the top. The shells are empty, alas, but “you can easily find thousands in just a few liters of soil,” he says.

Even scooping bucket flotsam has its complications. Schilthuizen, of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Leiden

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