August 05, 2013

A one-of-a-kind shell collection

Dr. Phil Nudelman, a retired business executive from Bellevue, Washington, and a UW graduate, recently donated a collection of more than 100,000 shells to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. 

The collection represents approximately 24,000 individual species and sub-species of primarily snails, but also chitins and clams from all over the world. Some were collected in the Pacific Northwest and the Mediterranean, while the majority of specimens come from the Indo-Pacific region – especially Hawaii.

The shells, which have both aesthetic and research value, are currently being sorted and catalogued into the Burke Museum’s malacology collection. Of equal importance to the shells is the remarkable amount of scientific data that accompanies the specimens. With collection dates, locations, and other notes for more than 25,000 of the shells, scientists and the general public alike can gain important context and information.

“Phil and Sandra Nudelman’s donation is an extraordinary gift to both the Burke Museum and researchers,” 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 now have a baseline of what mollusk life looked like.”

Unlike other collections, this one includes specimens from nearly every molluskan family. This provides a rare opportunity for researchers to compare a wide range of species from the same relative period of time.

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 said. “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 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.”

After retiring as the CEO of Group Health in 2000, Dr. Nudelman turned his attention to organizing the shells, describing them and inputting their data into a sophisticated database he created. So far, approximately 7,000 specimens are in the database with another 15,000-20,000 species, subspecies and forms that have detailed data yet to be inputted.

“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.

To learn more about this incredible 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 mollusks in the collection.

Please note: The shell collection is not on exhibit at this time.