The Curious Vault 007: Shells

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A significant portion of the 55,000 objects within the Curious Vault of the Miami Science Museum is comprised of innumerable shell specimens. It seems nearly impossible to quantify given the sheer amount, but shells, as anyone who has explored the sandy shores of South Florida knows, are an important part of our childhood. Our first hours on the beach are spent combing through the surf in search of small exoskeletons and other natural marine treasures. For a child, even a broken husk of a shell will pique the imagination and instill pure delight.

The Curious Vault does not contain many broken husks, and indeed holds many pristine samples from “almost every ocean in the world,” explains Skip Uricchio, Senior Curator of Living Collections at the Miami Science Museum. This underscores the relatively vast scope of the museum’s shell collection, and because there are so many, there is still some mystery left. Uricchio explains, “there exists a potential for unknown holotypes, which are the first known and oldest specimens, or even previously undescribed species.” What is known is that there are some very rare pieces that are highly sought after by shell collectors and museums with biological and natural holdings around the globe, including many that are endangered or threatened.

shell variety

Rare undersea specimens can be admired like the Giant clam, which is the largest living bivalve mollusk, or a two-part hinged shell. There is also the Chambered nautilus, which actually has the capability of filling each chamber with gas, and the carnivorous Cone snail that shoots a poison dart known to occasionally kill humans. Uricchio also explains that the museum holdings include Paper nautilus samples, which is “something of a holy grail amongst shell collectors.” The Paper nautilus is not only rare, but also extremely fragile, and is named so for its ultra thin eggshell secreted by females. This is an evolutionary anomaly singular to this animal, and given this species’ rarity, is a true gem in The Curious Vault.

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Paper Nautilus

But not all shells come from the ocean. One of the more magnificent shells in the collection is a large land snail from New Zealand, much like the invasive Giant African Land Snail that has recently plagued South Florida. The example from New Zealand is the largest in the world, and mostly feeds on other snails.

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Giant carnivorous New Zealand land snail

Also native to South Florida is the Cuban Tree Snail, of which the collection holds a very impressive array. These shells are known for their intricate and bright color patterns, which make them highly sought after.

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Cuban tree snail

Deep in the crevasses of some of the shells you can see the carcasses of the animals they once housed at the bottom of the sea. Shells are complicated for museums because of the ethical problems inherent of amassing collections of animals that are alive or were once alive. Uricchio says that anyone searching for shells on the beach or anywhere should “be sure to take dead only souvenirs.” Some of the collection is known to have been illegally moved across borders by smugglers, much like the sea turtle specimens found in The Curious Vault.

Shells come from hard animals, so most examples are slightly more durable to touch than other and because of this, the shell collection can be used in hands-on exposure to young children. The Miami Science Museum has a program called ECHOS, which stands for Early Childhood Hands-on Science. ECHOS is a curriculum of interactive lessons that bring science to life in the preschool classroom. For instance, in “Feathered Friends” young children learn the characteristics of birds like those found in the museum’s living collection, and how they are adapted to live in different habitats, while in “Busy Buzzing Bees” children build bee models to learn about the structure of bees like those found in the museum’s new on-site beekeeping facility and engage in role plays to understand some of the unique behaviors that allow them to harvest nectar and make honey.

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Ted Myers, Senior Director of Science and Technology at the Museum explains that “Discovering Shells,” one of the other thematic lessons “was originally inspired by the wide variety of beautiful shells found on South Florida’s beaches and represented in the Museum’s collection.” Children focus on distinguishing immediately observable factors of shells, such as color, shape, and texture. Myers goes on to explain that the shells portion of ECHOS helps “children learn that mollusks grow shells to protect their soft bodies. Children practice how to describe the attributes of shells: Is it smooth? Is it broken or whole? Is it shaped a certain way? Is it a specific color? They use these attributes to sort and categorize shells into separate groups. Then, children take on the role of conchologists, ready to solve the mysteries of the missing shells.”

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This year, the ECHOS curriculum and professional development model was implemented at 36 Head Start classrooms throughout Miami-Dade County as part of an efficacy study funded by the US Department of Education. ECHOS and the children participating in the program is yet another way that the Curious Vault comes to life in fascinating ways.

A good portion of the shell holdings of the Miami Science Museum is currently on display. To find out more about ECHOS, or to purchase ECHOS curriculum, materials, and professional development services, visit the ECHOS website.

The Curious Vault is a bi-weekly online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.

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