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Museum unveils ‘Beyond Shells’ addition

By Staff | Mar 2, 2020

TIFFANY REPECKI “Baby” Pacific reef with mollusks and other species.

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum has opened its new “living exhibits” – the final phase of its major expansion – as part of its mission to raise awareness of and educate the public on mollusks.

On March 1, “Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks” opened to visitors. 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 beachgoers and collectors. The expansion consists of 11 aquarium exhibits, two 15-foot-long touch tanks, and interactive interpretive exhibits.

“The living exhibits will help people look at the diversity in the ocean,” Executive Director Dorrie Hipschman said, noting that the intent is to get people to start caring about the “slimy things.”

Marine biologist Rebecca Mensch, curator of the new exhibit, explained that there are about 8,000 mollusk species and they include non-shelled creatures like octopus, squid, cuttlefish and more.

“There’s this huge diversity among mollusks,” she said.

TIFFANY REPECKI Warm-water touch tank with local species of mollusks.

Mensch noted that the museum’s exhibit is the only living gallery of its kind in the world.

“I think people are going to be really surprised when they see it,” she said.

The 11 aquarium exhibits range in size from 100 gallons to 900 gallons, and they house octopuses, nudibranchs, giant clams and nautilus. Mensch explained that one tank contains a “baby” Pacific reef with mollusks and other species to show their interconnected role and importance in the ecosystem.

“In 10 to 15 years, this will become a fully-grown coral reef,” Hipschman noted.

There are also three wet-dry tanks, which feature the live animals and their shell specimens in a side-by-side split comparison. The junonia, tiger shell cowrie and donkey’s ear abalone are showcased.

TIFFANY REPECKI The new exhibit features a giant Pacific octopus.

Mensch reported that it reinforces that shells are part of a mollusk’s body.

“That shells aren’t just a rock,” she said. “They are basically a bone, a part of the animal.”

The new exhibit also features non-shell mollusks or cephalopods, such as flamboyant cuttlefish, two-spot octopus and a giant Pacific octopus – which can typically grow to 15 feet across. To educate about bivalve farming and overharvesting, there are tanks with nautiluses, flame scallops, oysters and more.

The intent is to teach visitors to become informed consumers.

“It’s really important to find out what species it is, where it came from and how it was harvested,” Mensch said in reference to buying seashells and the shell trade. “So you’re not depleting wild stocks.”

TIFFANY REPECKI Wet-dry tanks feature the live animals and their shell specimens in a side-by-side split comparison and include the junonia, tiger shell cowrie and donkey’s ear abalone.

The exhibit also showcases two touch tanks that let people get their hands wet as they explore the world of mollusks. One tank is cold-water and features Pacific-Northwest species like gumboot chiton, Lewis’ moon snail, swimming scallop, California sea hare and red turban snail, while the other contains local warm-water ones like lightning whelk, horse and fighting conch, shark eye and lettered olive.

She explained that the tanks highlight the similarities and differences between the species.

The walk-though gallery concludes with information about conservation, research and education.

“It’s the call to action,” Mensch said.

Because the typical lifespan of a mollusk is only one to three years, the museum will have the option of replacing animals with the same one or not, giving it the flexibility to change up the living exhibits.

TIFFANY REPECKI Tanks containing two-spot octopus, left, and flamboyant cuttlefish, right.

Hipschman explained that the journey to improve the facility started in 2016 after staff were asking visitors on their way in and on their way out what they learned, only to discover they had not learned as much as the museum had hoped. Officials knew they were doing something wrong and had to fix it.

“How do we really show people these animals from around the world?” she asked.

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.

“People don’t know they exist. You can’t save something that’s at huge risk of extinction, if you don’t know they exist,” Hipschman said, adding that new exhibits will educate and help raise awareness.

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

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is at 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel.