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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. 

Malacology collection at the Burke Museum

Malacology collection at the Burke Museum

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:

Kirsten Rowell
Curator of Malacology

Alan Kohn
Adjunct Curator of Malacology
Tel: 206-616-4383