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Peter Hovingh is the discoverer of a living fossil.

It's not a dramatic find, like the coelacanth - the lob-finned fish that was believed to be extinct for many millions of years but was caught off southern Africa in the 1930s. Nevertheless his find is a delight and of true scientific value.Hovingh is a biologist who works for the Veterans Administration in Salt Lake City. He spends his free time making population studies of the springs, streams and ponds of the Great Basin, cataloging mollusks, leaches and amphibians.

He estimates there may be 50 kinds of mollusks in the region, including snails, mussels and freshwater clams.

Last year, as he was investigating springs near the Great Salt Lake, he came upon aquatic snails he couldn't identify. If you found one, you probably wouldn't think it was special. But to puzzle Hovingh, it has to be unusual.

They were fairly large snails - up to an inch and a half long. The pattern of ridges on the shell was strange. "I hadn't encountered this before," Hovingh said.

He took a few specimens to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency didn't know what they were either and asked Hovingh for the name of a molluscologist who might identify it. He gave the name of an expert in Seattle, who said he charged $100 an hour for research and thought he could probably identify it in an hour.

"Which is all right," Hovingh said. "Biologists should get as much as lawyers or doctors."

Sadly, though, "the Fish and Wildlife Service didn't have $100 in the budget to identify it."

The agency sent the snail to one of its own scientists, who was only able to determine it was not Lymnaea kingi, a species that once lived in Utah Lake and in springs north of the Great Salt Lake.

"It was basically dropped at that point," Hovingh said. The shells were given to the University of Utah collection.

Then this summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service hired Arthur H. Clarke of Portland, Texas, a former curator of the Smithsonian who is an expert on freshwater mollusks and who now has a consulting service. He was hired to help with a survey of possible threatened and endangered mollusks in this region.

About six months ago, Clarke said, Hovingh sent him some specimens of the snail. "I didn't know what it was at first, but I brought it around to various museums," comparing the shell with specimens there.

Eventually, he "concluded in fact that it was the Lymnaea bonnevillensis, the species that we earlier thought was extinct."

Lymnaea bonnevillensis lived in the freshwater Lake Bonneville, which poured off 8,000 years ago. Only the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake are left as remnants of the once gigantic lake. Some species of animals, like the Lake Bonneville cutthroat trout, survive in streams or springs around the Great Basin.

Around 100 years ago, a scientist named R.E. Call collected some shells of freshwater snails from the benches of the ancient lake and described them in the scientific literature. They were named Lymnaea bonne-villensis.

All the other mollusks known to have lived in Lake Bonneville have been discovered alive in various springs. "It was felt that this species was the only one that didn't still live," Clarke said. That is, until now.

When Clarke came to Utah, Hovingh "was a very great help. . . . He brought us to those springs where Lymnaea bonnevillensis was still found," Clarke said.

"We got live ones, and we sent them to a colleague of mine at the University of Michigan, another scientist who works on freshwater snails and who has laboratory facilities for doing fairly advanced work. . . . He has them now living at the University of Michigan."

Among the studies to be done are chromosome counts that could help to establish connections with other snails. "They may be, oh, sort of a missing link in that group of snails. It may be an ancient species that shows relationships to modern groups that haven't been known before."

Clarke said he was excited when the snail showed up. This isn't the first time it has been found alive. Some time ago, specimens were collected and given to the University of Michigan. But they were misidentified, labeled as coming from "Box Elder County, Wyoming."

Apparently the labeling should have been "Box Elder County, Utah."

This mistake led to a reference in one scientific paper that the snail survived in Wyoming, which is clearly wrong. They exist, as far as anyone knows, only in three springs near the Great Salt Lake - and now at the University of Michigan.

"Although there is that confusing modern record, this is the first unequivocal, clear indication that the species does live and where it lives," Clarke said.

"It's quite important scientifically because this snail was only found in the Bonneville basin," Hovingh said.

"So now one can study its evolutionary origins, as it is related to species in the Northwest and Canada."

Clarke adds, "It is exciting. We will probably end up putting that species on the endangered species list."