Consider the slug. Slimy and slow, they are few people’s favorite animal. But look closer, as biologist Jann Vendetti ’01 does, and you may gain a whole new appreciation for these slippery invertebrates. For starters, Vendetti says, “sea slugs and certain sea snails are breathtakingly beautiful,” all riotous flares of neon pink and electric blue. And even common land slugs have some, ahem, astonishing attributes. “When you cut open a slug, its penis takes up a fourth of its body,” Vendetti says. “Some of them have elaborate means by which they intertwine their phalluses and both inseminate each other. I have learned to be in awe of their weirdness.”
As a malacologist — someone who studies mollusks — Vendetti is most fascinated by the incredible biodiversity of these creatures. While the world has approximately 5,000 species of mammals — from dogs to whales — it has more than 65,000 species of snails and slugs. Vendetti’s job as Twila Bratcher Chair in Malacological Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is to catalog, classify, and study the museum’s incredible array of specimens. Vendetti’s work is not just an academic exercise, but has practical applications as well. Southern California imports materials from all over the world — tiles from Italy and plants from Florida — that could be carrying hitchhikers. “If certain pest snails or slugs get into our crops, it could be devastating,” she says. So, as part of her work, Vendetti has enlisted the help of Los Angeles community members to track both native and introduced species.
Vendetti grew up in New Jersey, but fell in love with biology during childhood summer visits to her grandparents’ home in coastal Maine. “I would find a tidepool with 100 different living things in it. It was magical,” she says. “A lot of kids had their tidepool phase, but I never grew out of that.” At Colgate, she started out as a biology major, but due to a scheduling fluke, ended up taking Invertebrate Paleontology with Professor Connie Soja. “In the morning, I learned the history of life of echinoderms, and in the afternoon, we learned the modern diversity of that group in Invertebrate Zoology,” Vendetti remembers. The experience made her fascinated with evolution, so she double majored in geology and biology, took Evolution with Professor Damhnait McHugh, and later published a paper with Soja that classified an unknown fossil specimen. At the Natural History Museum, she is also the acting assistant curator of invertebrate paleontology, so that fortuitous scheduling conflict paid off.
After graduation, Vendetti attended the University of California, Berkeley to study paleontology and molecular phylogenetics, a field that uses DNA to reconstruct evolutionary relationships between species. She gravitated toward slugs and snails for their incredible biodiversity, including species that might look the same but have evolved independently, a phenomenon known as “cryptic diversity.” Using DNA, Vendetti has been able to tease out these differences and create complex evolutionary family trees. Along the way, she’s named some newfound species, and has even had a colleague name a species after her — a sea slug from the Philippines named Polybranchia jannae.
In her current role at the Natural History Museum, Vendetti has shared her fascination through a project called SLIME (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments), which enlists community members to create a census of local land-living snails and slugs. Using the smartphone app iNaturalist, participants take pictures of snails and slugs and send them to the SLIME project where Vendetti and others identify them. Already, the project has racked up more than 10,000 observations and documented five species never seen in the Los Angeles area — including one never seen in the United States. Vendetti recently published a paper on those findings for the American Malacological Bulletin, naming some contributing project members as co-authors. She hopes this project gives participants a new appreciation for biodiversity they may have not noticed before — or worse, wrinkled their noses at. “A species may not seem interesting at first,” says Vendetti, “but after learning more about it, it can become fascinating. Evolution is amazing.”