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Diversity in the ocean: Mollusc exhibit demonstrates their importance

More than 250 shells are featured in “Family Tides: A Mollusc Family Tree” at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. (Courtesy of Jenica Morgan-Smith)

New Mexico is a land-locked state.

While bodies of water do exist, they are not in abundance.

That doesn’t dampen the fascination of molluscs.

“Each one is intricate but it also serves a purpose,” says Jason Malaney, BioScience Collections curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

The museum opened the exhibit, “Family Tides: A Mollusc Family Tree” on Nov. 8, and features 253 shells from the museum’s permanent collection.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science recently opened the exhibit “Family Tides: A Mollusc Family Tree.” (Courtesy of Jenica Morgan-Smith)

Molluscs – also known as mollusks – are a diverse group that features everything from giant squids to tiny snails, each with unique features.

The shells vary in size, shape and color, highlighting the diversification of molluscs.

The exhibit also displays five major groups of molluscs – gastropods, cephalopods, bivalves, tusk shells and chitons – which are one of the most ancient and successful groups of animals.

The more than 250 shells on display vary in size, shape and color, highlighting the diversification of molluscs. (Courtesy of Jenica Morgan-Smith)

Visitors can learn about the differences between prehistoric, versus modern molluscs.

“We look to molluscs as a line of defense,” Malaney says. “When the environment changes, we can usually see the effects on a mollusc. They are very sensitive to the environment.”

The exhibit had a long journey to fruition.

After the museum was founded in 1986, the majority of the collection was donated by Jacquenette Ostheimer after the death of her husband Alfred J. Ostheimer III in 1983.

Many of the shells come from various locations from all around the world and most on display are part of the Ostheimer extensive collection.

The shells come from many of Alfred Ostheimer’s scientific expeditions to the South Pacific and West Indies beginning in the 1960s with The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1976, the couple moved the collection to Santa Fe.

Shells from all over the world were donated to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. (Courtesy of Jenica Morgan-Smith)

“This collection is a global collective,” Malaney says. “There’s enough diversity in this collection to give a good picture of how important molluscs are to the ecological system.”

The shell exhibit also includes shells from the collections of Ken Hueter and Tom Eichhorst.

Hueter is a volunteer with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science and Eichhorst is a retired Air Force pilot and editor of American Conchologist.

Funding was approved for the exhibit and it took nearly six years to complete. It is now a permanent exhibit at the museum.

“There are important issues we can learn from molluscs,” says Lindsey Frederick, BioScience Collections manager. “This exhibit will give visitors a chance to see the diversity in the ocean. We have some shells that are native to New Mexico as well. There are some that are worth more than others because of the rarity. It’s an amazing collection where visitors can learn a lot.”

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