February 21, 2012

Malacology at the Burke

Photo courtesy Dr. Rowell
Do you know what malacology is without looking it up? Malacology is the study of molluscs – which includes squid, snails, and many of the critters that leave beautiful shells on our beaches. The Burke Museum has a malacology collection and also a collection of corals and the shells of non-molluscs. “It’s what most people would call a shell collection,” explains Dr. Kirsten Rowell, the Burke’s curator of malacology. Most people would call her a curator of shells.

Dr. Rowell’s job is to sort out the malacology collection, which has never had a formal curator. The collection began in the 1890’s when P. Brooks Randolph, one of the founding members of the Pacific Northwest Young Naturalists, joined efforts to explore, collect, and catalogue the diverse flora and fauna in the PNW. “The malacology collection used to have a pretty prominent role at the Burke – the Mezzanine level [of the Museum, now a staff-only area] was funded in the early 1960 by an National Science Foundation grant to support the invertebrate collection”.” A room filled with shells once stood where the Burke's gift shop now stands. “Shells have always captivated the interest of people walking on the beach. They’re like the birds of the sea, they are beautiful and accessible… people tend to gravitate towards collecting them and learning more about them.”

Photo courtesy Dr. Rowell
Dr. Rowell’s interest in the collection is a little different. She’s actually not a malacologist (she doesn't focus on molluscs). She’s an aquatic biologist and ecologist. She uses the malacology collection at the Burke to study past aquatic environments. People have been collecting shells for a very long time, and that gives us a unique record of what water was like at the time those shells' inhabitants were alive. Dr. Rowell uses the shells (and a technique called geochemistry) to study animal populations, ocean acidification, and climate change at specific sites around the world.

For example, Dr. Rowell and her colleagues studied the shells of black murex snails, a species that is heavily harvested in the Gulf of California. Information from the shells told them how fast the snails were growing, and how much harvesting local populations might tolerate.

The Burke's malacology collection contains shells from around the world. If we know when and where they were collected, they can provide us with valuable information about what their habitat used to be like. By comparing this information with modern measurements, we can track changes in aquatic environments over long periods of time.

The shells at the Burke - like all the other specimens here - are like a library, ready to help us answer questions about the natural world.

Posted by: Winifred Kehl, Communications