History of the Malacology collection

October 29, 2013
Burke Museum

Malacology is the study of modern molluscs, including snails, clams and chitons. Molluscs are a diverse group of invertebrate animals that arose with the first animals over 500 million years ago. Most have obvious shells, but some like the slug and octopus do not. The Burke collection is almost entirely of shell specimens, and most of the specimens are from the tropical Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean.

Specimen in the Malacology collection.

Photo: Burke Museum.

Specimen in the Malacology collection.

Photo: Burke Museum. 

In the 1890s, P. Brooks Randolph, a founding member of Seattle’s Young Naturalists Society, and Dr. Trevor Kincaid led nature tours throughout the Pacific Northwest and gathered shells along the way—providing an important snapshot of the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century. Many of the specimens collected during these forays, such as freshwater mussels that used to grow near Green Lake and Market Street in Seattle, are no longer found in the those locations.

The collection continued to grow steadily and today. The focus is on marine molluscs from the Indo Pacific (mostly Guam and surrounding islands) as well as marine and freshwater Molluscs from the Pacific Northwest.  


Last year, Dr. Phil Nudelman and his wife Sandra donated their collection of 100,000 shells of primarily snails, but also clams and chitons to the Burke Museum. The collection represents approximately 24,000 individual species and sub-species of primarily snails, but also chitins and clams from all over the world. 

The shells, which have both aesthetic and research value, are currently being sorted and catalogued into the Burke Museum’s malacology collection. Of equal importance to the shells is the remarkable amount of scientific data that accompanies the specimens.

With collection dates, locations, and other notes for more than 25,000 of the shells, scientists and the general public alike can gain important context and information. Also, unlike other collections, this one includes specimens from nearly every molluscan family, providing a rare opportunity for researchers to compare a wide range of species from the same relative period of time. Another highlight of this collection is also is that it includes all the known species within two of the largest families, the cowries and cone shells.

The collection serves as an important contribution to our permanent library of biodiversity. In the future, these specimens will help researchers answer questions that haven’t even been asked. To learn more about this incredible collection, watch this in-depth video tour given by Dr. Nudelman, who shares some amazing stories about the shells and also walks through many of the different types of molluscs in the collection. 

Back to Top