The Castle of Ambras

by Helmut Nisters, Austria

After an introduction to the Castle's fascinating history, the tiny landshells that can be found in the grounds are illustrated. The techniques described can be used to find
and study tiny landshells in your own area.

South-East from the center of Innsbruck in the midst of a large park is situated the famous Castle Ambras in Renaissance style. The Tirolean Sovereign, Archduke Ferdinand II (1529 - 1595), gave instructions to finish it as both his residential castle and a museum. The present Art and Historical Museum now displays the collections of this generous patron of the Habsburger.

You can see three armouries, as well as a chamber for art and "curiosities". In the "Hochschloss" you can find the portrait gallery of the "Habsburger" with the portraits beginning from Duke Albrecht III (1349-1395) up to Emperor Franz I (1768-1835) and those of their relatives of the European dynasties. On the ground-floor is situated the collection of late mediaeval images (sculptures, paintings etc.), of which the most important and the showpiece is the Georgsaltar of Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519).

Click on the image right to see a larger view of the Castle and grounds.

The central court is decorated with ornate mural paintings, a rarity is the bathroom of Philippine Welser. At the foot of the "Hochschloss" Ferdinand II had the Spanischen Saal built. In this 40 m long representation hall the "Ambraser Schlosskonzerte" takes place every summer.

As many British enjoy the Dracula-myth, I want to mention that among the portraits there is one of the Count Vlad Tzepesch IV (15th century), the impaler, son of Count Vlad Dracul, and notorious for his atrocities. This painting from the 16th century is a copy of the oldest original (15th century).

That's what you can admire, when you are visiting the Castle Ambras. But nevertheless you can find a lot of things, which initially are not to be discovered with the unaided eye. You don't believe me? I am speaking of several nice and interesting creations by Nature and not by human beings, which are living on an ivy-covered wall of this park, which Archduke Karl Ludwig had built in the 19th century: some landshells.

Many of these snails are so small (about 1 - 3 mm) that we call them microshells. They live well hidden in leaf mould and earth among the roots of ivy. So when we want to collect them to integrate them into a collection, we can't collect them as normal sized shells but only by hand or by using tweezers. We have to take a lot of this leaf mould and earth to check it at home using magnifiers, as a lens or microscope. This is sometimes quite hard and time-consuming work, as we have first to sieve the leaf mould and earth with a sieve (riddle) at the place where we found it, to separate it from rougher material, such as stones, roots, leaves etc.

This so called "Gesiebe" (in German) we bring home to sieve it again from one to three scales, from rough to very fine using sieves with different wire-nettings to sort out later our beloved microshells. If the leaf mould is too moist, we have to let it dry near a window or at a not too shadowy place. In the rougher material you can just sort out Clausiliidae as:

Clausilia dubia dubia (Draparnaud, 1805)
Laciniaria plicata plicata (Draparnaud, 1801)
Balea biplicata biplicata (Montagu, 1803)
and Discus rotundatus (O. F. Müller, 1774) (Fam. Discidae).

In the finer material you can find the other tiny shells: Vertiginidae, Valloniidae and Punctidae (Punctum pygmaeum (Draparnaud, 1801), is our smallest European landshell).

As my mother, Irmgard Nisters, aged nearly 88 years, cannot always go out, it's my job to collect the "Gesiebe" for her, which she prepares in the above mentioned way to sort out the microshells. That's what makes her young and quite agile again!

So that you don't overlook and miss any important microshell, you should take only a small sample at a time from the material being examined i.e. what you get can between two fingers and not more. In this way my mother sorts out the shells using a lens, fine tweezers (Leonhard-tweezers), a fine brush or a pencil and even her spitted forefinger. After sorting I help identify the shells under my stereo-microscope with magnifications from 10X to 40X.

As the shells are very fresh when collected or if recently dead, I can just use them for our
collection without cleaning them. I don't like to clean them as maybe I can ruin them. Otherwise you can put them in a cup of water with a little washing up liquid as the housewives use for their dishes for a few hours, rinse them afterwards and let them dry. But afterward they often look worse than when in their original dry condition. If they are living, you can put them into a strong solution of alcohol (more than 70%) for a few days and then let them dry. Then you can put them into your collection.

The shells found along the wall of the park of Castle Ambras are:

1. Vertigo pusilla O. F. Müller, 1774 (Fam. Vertiginidae)
2. Vertigo pygmaea (Draparnaud, 1801) (Fam. Vertiginidae)
3. Vertigo angustior Jeffreys, 1830 (Fam. Vertiginidae)
4. Truncatellina cylindrica (A. Frussac, 1807) (Fam. Vertinidae)
5. Pupilla muscorum (Linnaeus, 1758) (Fam. Pupillidae)
6. Vallonia costata costata (O. F. Müller, 1774) (Fam. Valloniidae)
7. Vallonia excentrica (Sterki, 1892) (Fam. Valloniidae)
10. Laciniaria plicata plicata (Draparnaud, 1801) (Fam. Clausiliidae)
11. Balea biplicata biplicata (Montagu, 1803) (Fam. Clausiliidae)
12. Punctum pygmaeum (Draparnaud, 1801) (Fam. Punctidae)
our smallest European landsnail
13. Discus rotundatus (O. F. Müller) (Fam. Discidae)

In some other parts and habitats e.g. in a small forest with a few rocks, under vegetation and on other walls I've found the following species.

8. Ena montana (Draparnaud, 1801) (Fam. Buliminidae)
under vegetation on a small slope in a small forest
9. Clausilia dubia dubia Draparnaud, 1805 (Fam. Clausiliidae)
14. Helix pomatia Linnaeus, 1758 (Fam. Helicidae)
our largest Tirolean landshell.

Thumbnail images of the shells (not to scale, max. dimension given).
Numbers refer to species above.
Click here to view a page of larger images with scale bars.

1. 1.8mm

2. 1.8mm

3. 1.7mm

4. 1.8mm

5. 3.2mm

6. 2.3mm

7. 2.3mm

8. 13.5mm

9. 12.5mm

10. 17.5mm

11. 15.5mm

12. 1.3mm
13. 5.4mm

14. 21mm

Comments to the author Helmut Nisters are welcomed. Contact details below (work/home):

Natural History Department of the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum Innsbruck,
Malacological Collection,
Feldstr. 11a,
A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria, Europe.
Phone: 0043 512 58 72 86 37.
Helmut Nisters
Franz-Fischer-Str. 46
A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria, Europe
Phone and Fax: 0043 512 57 32 14

Visitors' information for the Castle of Ambras:

Castle e-mail:
Telephone: 0043 512 34 84 46.
Visiting times:
1st Apr - 31st Oct: Wed - Mon: 10.00 - 17.00
1st Dec - 31st Mar: Wed - Mon: 14.00 - 17.00

Acknowledgements. Thank you to Michael Gilhaus of the Tirol Tourism Office for permission to use the Castle of Ambras images.

Editor's note: Helmut has generously offered a wide range of smaller landshells to Micscape, many of which can be widely found in Europe, and we will be compiling an on-line illustrated resource in the coming months using Helmut's and his mother Irmgard's extensive experience. We hope this will become a valuable on-line resource to encourage readers to search for microscopic landshells in their own area.

Digital image capture details: small shells taken with Panasonic CL350 video camera with 50mm Nikon SLR lens and extension tubes. Helix shell taken with Fuji DX-10 digital camera in macro mode.


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Article prepared for the Web by David Walker. Images by David Walker from shells
kindly supplied and identified by Helmut Nisters.

URL: hnambras

© Microscopy UK or their contributors.

Published in the June 1999 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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