A one-of-a-kind shell collection

Photo: Cathy Morris/Burke Museum
Photo: Cathy Morris/Burke Museum
October 7, 2015 | Cathy Morris

In 2013, Dr. Phil Nudelman, a retired business executive from Bellevue, Washington, and a graduate of the University of Washington, donated an extensive collection of shells to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

At first glance, the collection reflects an impressive lifetime passion for the beauty and science of shells. From a detailed research perspective, the collection represents the spectacular diversity of molluscs, including snails, clams, nautiluses, chitons, and tusk shells – with an estimated 100,000 specimens and 24,000 species. While many of these specimens were collected in the Pacific Northwest, the majority originated in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Indo-Pacific region, especially Hawaii.

Over the next few years, the shells will be sorted, catalogued, and incorporated into the Burke Malacology Collection. Of particular value is the remarkable amount of scientific data associated with the specimens. More than 25,000 shells come with collection event data, including locations, dates, and other information. Such data allows scientists and the public to learn more about these animals and their environments.

“Phil and Sandra Nudelman’s donation is an extraordinary gift to both the Burke Museum and researchers beyond” said Dr. Elizabeth Nesbitt, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology. “The shells are a comprehensive record of the biodiversity of one important group of animals. As climate change occurs and environments deteriorate, we have a better baseline of what mollusc life looked like.”

A lifetime of collecting

Dr. Nudelman’s lifetime of collecting began with a shell baby rattle he used as a toddler.

“I started collecting at a very early age,” he recalled. “I collected actively on the Oregon and Washington coasts mostly because of the shape and diversity of shells, but didn’t really get serious about collecting data with the shells until I attended the UW and majored in zoology.”

As an undergraduate at the UW, 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,” Sandra explained, “Whether it’d be for business or pleasure, we’d go looking for shells.”

After retiring as the CEO of Group Health in 2000, Dr. Nudelman turned his attention to organizing the shells, identifying them, and entering their data into a database. So far, approximately 7,000 specimens are in the database with another 15,000-20,000 specimen lots that have detailed data yet to be databased.

“This was a lifelong project,” Dr. 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.”

By sharing these specimens with the Burke Museum, Phil and Sandra Nudelman made 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.

View our Flickr gallery for more images of the shell collection.

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To learn more about this one-of-a-kind shell 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.

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