research projects

Recondition of the Nalepa collection

Alfred Nalepa (1856-1929) is a founder of eriophyidology, he described the majority of known common European species of eriophyoids. Nalepa’s collection is kept in the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHMW) and includes poorly labeled vials with dry sediment on the bottom, an old library and Nalepa’s archive including his correspondence (letters) and original drawings of mites. The Nalepa collection has never been revised and therefore is in poor condition. Moreover, Nalepa’s handwritten catalog with his detailed notes on each vial from the collection was lost, which makes it hard to work with the material.
This project was primarily aimed to recondition the Nalepa collection in order to make it available for a broad range of scientists. The main goals of this study were: 1) to estimate and improve the current condition of the collection; 2) to develop the best technique for recovering mites from vials and making slides; 3) to make a digital database of vials from Nalepa collection and 4) to find the best way for keeping the collection in future.
The project is funded by Pro Acarologia Basiliensis (PAB) and has been realized/coordinated by Philipp Chetverikov from Saint-Petersburg State University (Russia) in cooperation with the curator Christoph Hörweg.



Our research on mudshrimps is currently focusing on identifying, revising and describing new species based on material from our own collections from the Red Sea (2000-2002, 2005), from collections by Arthur Ankers in Panama (2005-2008), from expeditions to the Philippines (PANGLAO 2004, 2005, AURORA 2007), Christmas and Cocos Islands (2010, 2011), as well as from the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey of Singapur (2013, 2014).
Together with Gary Poore (Museum Victoria, Melbourne), Darryl Felder (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Rafael Robles and Fernando Mantelatto (Universidad de Sao Paulo), a phylogeny and classification of the Callianassoidea is being elaborated.


Biodiversity and epidemiology of flukes in water snails

Snails are intermediate hosts of flukes (Digenea), whose final hosts are vertebrates. In a multi-year NHM research project, we have been studying water snails and their infestation with fluke larvae in various habitats in the Danube- and Leitha-floodplains as well is in the Leitha mountain range. To date, the focuses of this project have been: invasive parasites, “swimmer’s itch”, wildlife parasites, host specificity, epidemiology, synecology and biodiversity. Knowledge about the species spectrum of the hosts and the parasites is relevant for all these issues. The project is also designed to shed light on snails as potential disease vectors. In a cooperation with the University of Veterinary Medicine, the Medical University Vienna and the Austrian hunting associations, the project puts special emphasis on studying the pathogens of game animals, farm animals and humans. The project is funded by the Lower Austrian Hunting Association (Niederösterreichischer Landesjagdverband), and Green Cross (Verein Grünes Kreuz).


Working group Alpine Land Snails

The phylogeny and phylogeography of alpine land snails is being studied since 2007 in cooperation with the Department of Central Laboratories (Abteilung Zentrale Laboratorien). In the framework of an FWF project, several diploma theses and two PhD dissertations have been completed on a number of snail genera. A series of publications, lectures, events and a dedicated homepage reflect the activities of this working group (


Speciation in land snails in rocky habitats

The genus name Montenegrina encompasses numerous species of clausilid snails that are exclusive to southeast Europe. The animals are restricted to limestone substrates and the ranges of the individual species are very restricted. This project, funded by the FWF from 2013 to 2016 (FWF P 26581-B25), tackles the speciation mechanisms of these endemites. In order to examine the differentiation within the genus Montenegrina, a variety of molecular genetic markers and morphological methods are being applied to reconstruct its phylogeny. Based on this systematic foundation, the biogeographic history of the genus is being reconstructed and the relationships between phylogenetic, morphological and ecological differentiation are being studied. The primary goals are to determine the role of selection as well as the extent of non-allopatric speciation mechanisms in the radiation of this group of land snails, which are specialized inhabitants of rocky landscapes. The project is a cooperation between the Department of Central Laboratories and the 3rd Zoological Department. All the available data on this project can be found under


Small heath snails – major questions: Initial attempts to clarify the situation of Helicopsis striata in Austria

The older malacological literature differentiates three species of the genus Helicopsis in Austria: the Striped heath snail Helicopsis striata (O. F. Müller 1774), the “Hungarian” heath snail Helicopsis hungarica (Soos & Wagner 1935) and the Austrian heath snail Helicopsis austriaca Gittenberger 1969, whereby the latter two were subsequently downgraded to subspecies of Helicopsis striata. All three forms are characteristic inhabitants of relict sites with open, sparse vegetation – a highly endangered habitat in Austria. The subspecies austriaca is listed in Appendix II of the Habitats Directive, and the validity of the subspecies hungarica is questioned by some authors. For these reasons, and because it remains unclear whether the populations in Seewinkel belong to the latter or represent an independent taxon, a project was initiated to re-map and phylogenetically investigate the Austrian populations of Helicopsis striata.

The first results of a molecular analysis (short segment of the mitochondrial COI-genes) showed that the three subspecies can be clearly differentiated. Moreover, during the course of the project, all three subspecies of heath snails were also found alive on sites where they had been thought to have become extinct. This may partially reflect improved dry grassland management in recent years. In a next step, comprehensive genetic, shell- and genital-morphological investigations are planned, accompanied by additional collections. A special focus will be on the distribution of Helicopsis striata austriaca, endemic to Lower Austria, and the affiliation of the populations in Seewinkel. See also
The project is funded by the provincial governments of Lower Austria and Burgenland.


ABOL – Austrian Molluscs

The (long-term) goal of the Initiative Austrian Barcode of Life is to characterize all species of animals, plants and fungi in Austria using DNA barcodes and to store the sequences together with metadata in a broadly accessible databank. In many cases this characterization enables a simple, quick and inexpensive identification of species – even if only tissue remains or developmental stages (eggs, larvae) are available. In those species whose genetic make-up is highly structured and variable, this survey raises interesting questions related to evolutionary history and biology. In some cases we can expect the discovery of new species. ABOL serves as an effective tool for numerous applications ranging from food safety to nature conservation. The pilot project, initiated by the Museum of Natural History Vienna and with broad support by numerous supporters from across the Austrian bio-research landscape, was approved by the Federal Ministry of Science. It pursues two main goals: the compilation of existing data and bringing the main project up to speed. The commission went to the University of Veterinary Medicine, which will coordinate the project in close cooperation with the Natural History Museum. In this phase, four pilot projects will generate the first new results. One of these projects has set its sights on Austrian molluscs. It is being coordinated in the NHM; a second project deals with parasitic worms. This effort incorporates both the staff and the collection of the 3rd Zoological Department. The collections are especially important in this project because our specimens can be used as a source for barcoding. At the same time, new specimens lend the collection a new dimension.


Monitoring project in the Biosphere Park Wienerwald (BPWW)

The 3rd Zoology Department is participating in a large monitoring project in the Biosphere Park Wienerwald with 2 taxonomic groups (land snails and pseudoscorpions). The field surveys were conducted in 2012 and 2013, but the evaluations are partially still ongoing.
For more information see Universum-Article or the homepage


Project “Dangerous Fauna”

The project “Endangered Fauna – Pilot Project Lebanon” was commissioned in2012 by the Austrian Army and funded by the Federal Ministry of Defense and Sports. This project is tasked with listing the animals species that potentially threaten the deployed soldiers, whether it be through direct mechanical effects (bites, stings, etc.) or via poisons or disease transmission. Lebanon was selected as a test case. During the course of data collection, the relevant species were listed and described in detail (morphology, habitat, distribution, etc.). In addition, the expected threats were discussed and measures to reduce risk were suggested. This led to a databank containing a total of 163 datasets. Most of the entries pertain to parasitic worms, insects, spiders and their kin; unicellular organisms, mammals, reptiles, molluscs as well as fishes were also considered. Thus, this project had been conducted in cooperation with other zoological departments of the NHM.


Quality control and quality assurance in scientific collections

The objects in scientific biological collections harbor a wealth of information. The degree to which this information can be tapped depends partly on the quality of the metadata, partly on the methodology employed. The preservation conditions and the storage history play an important role here. This is the reason why we conduct research on the collection history and on the history of science, as well as perform quality controls with regard to preservation status. We therefore recently took random samples of the wet collections to analyze their alcohol or formaldehyde concentrations (Schiller et al. 2014) as well as to determine the quality of the DNA in the samples. In a subsequent SYNTHESYS-study, we examined alcohol-preserved molluscs from various systematic groups. One focus was on the effect of different durations of conservation (a few months to over 100 years) on the usability of the samples for DNA studies. The results were very encouraging even for many very old samples (Jaksch et al. 2014). We are currently working on promising tests with dried tissue remains. Great importance must be attached to quality control and assurance in order to optimally use the collections as an inexhaustible source of data (Sattmann et al. 2013).


Blind Fish

A cooperation between the Department of Central Laboratories and the 3rd Zoological Department deals with the fish species Garra barreimiae from the southeast region of the Arabian Peninsula. These fish mainly inhabit surface waters of the Al Hajar mountains in Oman and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fish belonging to the same species are known from the Al Hoota cave system in northern Oman, but these are blind and unpigmented. This raises a number of interesting questions from the perspective of evolutionary biology: what mechanisms lead to the reduction of the eyes, what genes are involved in this process? Have the blind fish been separated from their surface-dwelling kin for a long time? Is there genetic exchange between the cave- and surface-water dwellers? Do other populations of blind fish exist? What is the genetic and geographic structure of the populations within the distribution range?