Paul R. Burch


P.R. Burch and Mollusks of Virginia
By Kara Hunt

Biography of Paul R. Burch
Paul Burch earned his doctorate at the University of Virginia in 1930. His work there involved hydra and the loss and gain of amoeba cytoplasm.  He began his career at Radford University as a Biology professor and remained there from 1928 to 1954 and also acted as chair of the department sometime in the 1950’s (Allen, 1959 and Hoffman and Mitchell, 1994). He was described by Dr. Richard Hoffman as “thin in stature and nervous of manner”; this nervousness developed into a condition like “stage fright” and prevented him from teaching. This nervous condition urged his retirement from the university in 1954 (Allen, 1959).  Burch resided in Radford for many years and had five children. One son, John “Jack” Burch, followed in his father’s footsteps. Dr. Jack Burch is retired from the University of Michigan, yet he continues his study of malacology as his father did. He is currently working on a book about Virginia mollusks that his father started in the 1950’s (J. Burch, personal communication, 2008).

Research of Burch
The majority of Burch’s research and time while at Radford was directed toward freshwater snails indigenous to this area of Virginia.  He set-aside his training as a laboratory-based biologist and became an enthusiastic student of Virginia’s natural history with a special interest in malacology (Hoffman and Mitchell, 1994). He was said to have the most extensive collection of mollusks in this area of the country at one time (Fig 2.) He collected many of the snails himself from rivers in several local counties. In 1935, he was commissioned by the Virginia Academy of Science to study mollusks. He then spent the summers between 1936 and 1945 at Mountain Lake Biological Station (Giles Co., VA) collecting and identifying mollusks (Allen, 1959). Burch was said to have the most extensive collection of mollusks in this area of the country at one time.

Many publications and one newly discovered species are credited to Paul Burch. Burch submitted his research and findings to the Virginia Academy of Science, Nautilus (Burch, 1947), The American Naturalist (Burch, 1946) and Copeia, (Burch, 1955). These articles discuss the chromosomes of Poloygyrid snails (Burch, 1946) and the salamander Siren lacertina feeding on clams and snails (Burch, 1955).He discovered a new species of snail, Polygyra virginiana, 1800 feet above the New River in Pulaski County, Virginia (Burch, 1947). Due to the rarity of this specimen it is not housed in the RU Natural History collection and instead resides in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, VA. Another discovery Burch made was the unearthing of the largest native land snail in eastern North America (Mesodon andrewsae normalis). This particular mollusk had been unknown to the state of Virginia until Burch located it in Giles County. 

Burch’s Collection at RU
Many of the specimens in the collection at Radford University come from counties in southwest Virginia including: Giles, Wythe, Montgomery, Pulaski, Bland, Lee, Scott, Rockbridge and Chesterfield. Five specimens were also found here in the city of Radford. However, P.R. Burch successfully “collected in all 95 counties of Virginia” (J. Burch, 2008) in his lifetime. The lower portion of the James River, New River and tributaries of these rivers are likely sites from which these specimens came.
 The current collection at Radford University is 54 shells total. These specimens are glued to cardboard or preserved in small pill boxes with cotton. There are approximately 30 genera of mollusks within the collection. Many of Burch’s taxonomic names are antiquated, as he accomplished much of the collection over 50 years ago. This made research of the collection’s status difficult and in some cases scientific names remain unclear or incomplete.

Ecological Value of Specimens at RU
All specimens in the collection are fairly common, a search of the 54 species on the IUCN redlist revealed only one species that is endangered, Io fluvialis (Bogan and Seddon, 1996). The “spiny river snail” has very specific habitat preferences: well-oxygenated shoals and riffles but not in the slack water beneath the shoals. The snail is found in the Clinch, Holston and Powell Valley river drainage systems. At one time the snail existed throughout the Tennessee River system (Tangley, 1984). It was also known to exist in the state of Alabama but is now known to be extinct in that state (Lydeard and Mayden, 1995). Dams, mining, agriculture, toxic spills, and introduced species are thought to be major causes of Io fluvialis’ decline as well as many other aquatic fauna in the southeastern region (Neves and Angermeier, 1990).
The reintroduction of Io fluvialis was attempted on the Virginia/Tennessee border in the North Fork of the Holston River in 1978 and then again in one upstream site north of Saltville, Virginia (Smyth Co., VA) in 1979. (Ahlstedt, 1991). The outcome of this reintroduction is currently unavailable. Reintroduction into the Holston River and also the French Broad River was attempted again in August 1996. Preliminary results showed that the adult survival in the French Broad River was capable of maintaining a stable population (Ahlstedt, 1997).

Burch’s Collection at other institutions
A portion of Burch’s snails can also be found in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Washington, D.C. and to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The specimens were taken there or shipped by Dr. Richard Hoffman, a former professor of Biology at Radford University, and also by Dr. Jack Burch. Both institutions have searchable databases containing 10 Burch specimens collectively; however, likely hundreds more are yet to be catalogued including Polygyra virginiana.

The wealth of information collected concerning these mollusks is still not sufficient to describe or understand why Burch’s collection of snails is important. As mentioned earlier, some of the specimens are still without current scientific names. These specimens are integral to Virginia’s natural history; they give us a glimpse into the mollusks that inhabited this region of the state so many years ago. In addition, possessing knowledge of organisms that are rare or threatened may bring understanding to changing biological factors in certain geographical locations.

The facts and records collected within this research project were made possible by Dr. John B. “Jack” Burch, Paul Burch’s son, the UMMZ staff and database, Dr. Karen Francl and Dr. Richard L. Hoffman of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Dr. J. Burch willingly gave us personal as well as professional information that aided in determining the current scientific names for the snails and provided more information about his father’s work. The UMMZ staff offered a link to Jack Burch as well as supplied information about specimens that P.R. Burch collected and are now located in their facility. Dr.Richard Hoffman gave direction in the history of the collection and where to find further resources.

Literature Cited

Ahlstedt, S. 1991. Reintroduction of the spiny riversnail Io fluvialis (Say, 1825) (Gastropoda: Pleuroceridae) into the North Fork Holston River, southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. Malacological Bulletin. 8:139-142.

Ahlstedt, S. 1997. Spiny River Snail reintroduction. Triannual Unionid Report. Report 12.

Allen, JF. 1959. PR Burch. The Nautilus: A quarterly devoted to Malacology. 72:100-102.

Burch, PR 1946. The chromosomes of polygyrid snails. The American Naturalist.

Burch, PR 1947. Polygyra virginiana: a new species from Virginia. The Nautilus: A quarterly devoted to Malacology. 61:40-41.

Burch, PR 1955. The salamander Siren lacertina feeding on clams and snails. Copeia. 3:255-256.

Bogan, AE & Seddon, MB 1996. Io fluvialis. In: IUCN 2008. 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <>. Downloaded on 03 December 2008.

Hoffman, RL and Mitchell, JC. 1994. Paul R. Burch’s hertpetological collection at Radford College, Virginia: A valuable resource lost. Catesbeiana. 14:3-12.

Lydeard, C and Mayden, RL. A diverse and endangered aquatic system of the southeast United States. Conservation Biology. 9:800-805.

Neves, RJ and Adermeier, PL. 1990. Habitat alteration and its effects on native fishes in the upper Tennessee River system, east-central U.S.A. Journal of Fish Biology. 37:45-52

Tangley, L. 1984. Protecting the insignificant. Bio Science. 34:406-409.