What is malacology?

Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
June 7, 2018 | Melissa Frey

Malacology—pronounced ma·luh·kaa·luh·jee—is the study of molluscs, a large and spectacularly diverse group of soft-bodied, invertebrate animals. According to the fossil record, the group originated more than 500 million years ago. Today, molluscs are represented by seven distinct classes, including the familiar bivalves (mussels, oysters, and clams), gastropods (snails and slugs), polyplacophora (chitons), scaphopods (tusk shells), and cephalopods (nautiloids, octopuses, and squids).

Most molluscs (but not all) build a shell for protection; and researchers often use this shell to help identify species. With an estimated 200,000 species living today, molluscs are second in species richness only to arthropods (i.e., insects, crustaceans, and allies). They occur worldwide at all depths of the oceans, in freshwater lakes and rivers, and on land. Many species are ecologically, commercially, and culturally important.

Given the significance of molluscs, the Burke Museum has developed a large Malacology Collection via donations from researchers and the general public. The collection primarily is composed of dry shells, with only a small, albeit increasing, number of fluid-preserved specimens. While extremely broad in geographical and ecological scope, it is best known for its Pacific Rim and marine focus. Currently, the collection is ranked as the most extensive and valuable shell collection in the Pacific Northwest.