Museum News

HMNS: You Owe Your Life to Sea Slugs well as plenty of other organisms on display at the museum's newly renovated George W. Strake Hall of Malacology.

By Morgan Kinney August 13, 2019

This guy? He's a mollusk.

Humans talk a big talk, but our existence ultimately relies on the existence of creatures such as mollusks.

Among nature's various phyla, mollusks rank second only to insects in terms of population. About a quarter of marine species fall in the category—including but not limited to squids, octopi, snails, cuttlefish, and, yes, slugs. By sheer numbers, they form a vital foundation to the food web, serving as food source for an estimated 80 percent of the world.

That's one of the big messages from the newly renovated George W. Strake Hall of Malacology at the Houston Museum for Natural Science: If we want to stick around on Earth for much longer, we best make sure mollusks survive, too.

“This is not just about pretty shells," says HMNS malacology curator Tina Petway. "This is about human’s reliance on the ocean’s resources.”

Despite the heavy message, the hall has operated under the radar for decades, opening in February 1987 to little fanfare. "The major presentation arrangement, utilizing dramatic lighting and attractive displays, allows the viewer to simply enjoy the shells for their beauty and variety," wrote the Chronicle in a short news brief on the opening. In a 2010 blog post, HMNS itself described the exhibit as "one of the most spectacular—if under-appreciated—exhibit halls here."

Mollusks actually comprise the largest portion of the museum's collection. HMNS boasts 1.5 million specimens, and the new hall curates roughly 1,300 of them, including rare finds such as Cymatium armatum—a species that, per Petway, "if you asked malacologists for a list of their 10 most rare shells, this one would be on every list.” 

Of course, not everyone wants to geek out over "Tahitian south sea pearls and the shells that produce them," and HMNS anticipates that by focusing on the larger theme of ocean conservation. A portion of the hall will center on a video from local artist Erik Hagen titled The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What's our excuse? The video incorporates data from Oregon State University climate researchers to project sea level rise from Galveston to The Woodlands through 2550. Displaying both low and high estimates, the idea is to shock visitors with the inundation that the region will experience should climate change proceed unabated; the world will be altered as it becomes hostile to both mollusks and humans.

There will also be plenty of pretty shells, which will be on view following the grand re-opening on August 30—perfectly timed to coincide with National Beach Day.

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