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Shell museum to open new exhibit in March

By Staff | Feb 18, 2020

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel will unveil its major expansion in early March, which entails adding living animal aquariums to its world-renowned shell collection.

The new experience sharpens the focus on mollusks, the live animals that create the shells prized by beach-goers and collectors, telling the story behind the museum’s displays of rare and record-breaking shells from around the world.

“Sanibel’s remarkable beaches are actually the second-best places to find stunning shells,” Executive Director Dorrie Hipschman said. “Visitors should stop by the museum, too, because once they see these exhibits, they’ll never again look at the beach the same way.”

The expansion consists of 11 aquarium exhibits ranging in size from 100 gallons to 900 gallons, and their residents will include gastropods, octopuses, nudibranchs, giant clams and nautilus. Two 15-foot-long touch tanks will let young visitors get their hands wet as they explore the world of mollusks, furthering the museum’s educational efforts that already reach thousands of schoolchildren each year.

Interactive interpretive exhibits will reveal hidden worlds behind the species. For instance, a giant Pacific octopus – typically 15 feet across – is also a mollusk, related to scallops, oysters, snails and slugs; it has just seen its shell disappear over millions of years of evolution.

The museum also emphasizes today’s environmental dangers facing the shell-builders, which are threatened by rising sea temperatures, habitat loss and overharvesting. Although there are more mollusks in the ocean than any other animal, many are endangered, going extinct faster than new species can be named. Mollusks are key parts of the ocean’s food web; as they decline, so will other marine species, such as whales and dolphins. The new expansion calls on visitors to learn how they can help.

“Conservation is hampered by a lack of awareness,” Hipschman said. “It’s hard to save animals when people don’t know they exist. We’re taking visitors who love shells and inspiring them to care deeply about the animals that make them, and that leads to the next step of wanting to protect them.”

Museum marine scientists conduct research about local shelled animals, documenting new species and researching and recording their lifespans, habitats and diet requirements. The science is critical because most major aquariums in the world have few invertebrates and do not contribute substantially to the knowledge of the critical species.

The expansion comes as the museum celebrates its 25th anniversary, having welcomed more than 1 million visitors to date. The nonprofit is an integral part of Sanibel, which is home to more than 400 species of shells. Sanibel is known for its efforts to protect that natural resource.

“Sanibel is simply a unique place, and there’s no other community in the world like this,” Hipschman said. “Its residents truly care about these animals and are invested in their health, and our expansion honors that commitment.”

For more information, visit www.shellmuseum.org or 239-395-2233.