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Malacology at the Burke

Malacology is the study of Molluscs, including snails, clams and chitons. Molluscs are a diverse group of invertebrate animals.  Most have obvious shells, but some like slugs, octopi and nutibranchs do not. Our collection is almost entirely of shell specimens – the hard parts.

History of our collection

In the 1890s, B. P. 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, we estimate our collection to have approximately 50,000 specimens. 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. 

The Phil and Sandra Nudelman Collection

Last year, Dr. Phil Nudelman, a retired business executive from Bellevue, Washington, and a UW graduate, donated a collection of more than 100,000 shells 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 molluskan family, providing a rare opportunity for researchers to compare a wide range of species from the same relative period of time. 

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 mollusks in the collection. 

Biodiversity of mollusks

Molluscs are a diverse group of animals that vary greatly in size, form and function.  The major groups include: gastropods (e.g. snails, limpets and slugs); bivalves (e.g. clams, oysters, mussels); cephalopods (e.g. squids and octopi); polyplacophors (chitons); and other groups that are not well known. 

Nearly 80% of Molluscs are gastropods.  Researchers estimate there are 85,000-120,000 known species of Molluscs living today and at least 70,000 species extinct species. The earliest evidence of Molluscs found in rock date back to the Cambrian era.

Cultural resources

Molluscs have, and continue to be, a vital part of humanity. They’ve been a food source, traded as currency and luxury goods (shells and pearls), and used as a dye.

Today, Molluscs make up a large portion of marine animals that are consumed by humans.  The most commonly eaten Molluscs include clams, oysters, mussels, octopi, squid, and whelks. 

Global change and threats

Molluscs appear to be very vulnerable to extinction, especially in the face of today’s rapid changes and degradation of aquatic habitats, intense harvest pressure of marine species, and increasing ocean acidification. The 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species included nearly 2,000 endangered non-marine Molluscs and 41 marine Molluscs. 

The Malacology Collection growth has been supported by the National Science foundation and Pacific Northwest Shells Club.

For more information about the Malacology division, please contact:

Elizabeth A. Nesbitt, PhD
Acting Curator of Malacology
Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology and Micropaleontology
Curator of Geology
Associate Professor, Earth and Space Sciences Department, University of Washington