Photo: Burke Museum
Rare shells offer invaluable information on the world’s mollusks
This summer, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture received a generous donation of 100,000 shells representing approximately 24,000 individual species and sub-species. The collection, donated by Bellevue residents Dr. Phillip and Sandra Nudelman, is the result of decades of collecting both shells and invaluable data.
The specimens in the collection come from all over the world. Species include local mollusks from the Pacific Northwest and the Mediterranean, with the majority of specimens from the Indo-Pacific – many from Hawaii. The collection is primarily marine gastropod snails, but also includes land shells, chitins and clams. The shells, which have both aesthetic and research value, are currently being sorted and catalogued into the Burke Museum’s malacology collection.
“Phil and Sandra’s donation is an extraordinary gift to both the Burke Museum and researchers alike,” said Dr. Liz Nesbitt, Burke Museum curator of invertebrate & micropaleontology. “The shells are a comprehensive record of the biodiversity of one important group of animals. As climate changes occurs and environments deteriorate, we now have a baseline of what mollusk diversity was in the western Pacific region.”
The collection includes specimens from nearly every molluskan family. This provides a rare opportunity for researchers to compare across a wide range of species from the same relative period of time.
Dr. Nudelman’s lifetime of collecting began at a very early age. “I collected actively on the Oregon and Washington coasts mostly because of the shape and diversity of shells,” he said, “but didn’t really get serious about collecting data with the shells until I attended the UW and majored in zoology.” At the University of Washington, he worked closely with his favorite professor, Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, and developed a passion for the identification, taxonomy, and systematics of shells and other plants and animals.
What started out as a hobby grew to a serious interest – one he shared with his wife, Sandra. “Wherever we traveled, whether it’d be for business or pleasure, we’d go looking for shells,” he said.
Of equal importance to the shells themselves is the remarkable amount of information the Nudelman family collected on the specimens. Collection dates, locations, and other notes provide important context for researchers. After retiring as the President and CEO of Group Health in 2000, Nudelman turned his attention to organizing the shells, describing them, and inputting their associated data into a sophisticated database he created. Over the past 13 years, he has added approximately 7,000 specimens to the database. Another 15,000-20,000 species, subspecies, and forms with detailed data are yet to be inputted.
“This was a lifelong project,” Nudelman said. “My kids and grandkids all love the shell collection but none of them wanted to lug the shells around for the rest of their lives, so we looked for a meaningful home—the Burke Museum.” Phillip and Sandra Nudelman’s donation to the Burke Museum also includes the database, which the museum will use to help make the data on the shells accessible.
Visitors can view some of the specimens in the collection Saturdays and Sundays in December, 11 am – 3 pm, as part of the Burke’s fish and shell-themed Weekend Activities. The shell collection will also be featured at the Burke Museum’s Members’ Behind-the-Scenes Night on Wednesday, February 12, 2014, from 5 – 8 pm.
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Photo: Burke Museum