the job, the museum, the mollusks

(note: I doodle everywhere, all the time, and I decided I ought to start throwing some of those little pieces into my journal, so today is the first such post… these were images i made as holiday cards for my coworkers this year.)

bunny with scallopEvery once in a while I try to explain to people what I do here as a curatorial assistant in Malacology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and what exactly it entails. Work takes up a good chunk of anyone’s week, and while I describe what I do to people, sometimes I don’t know if the message really gets across. I’m just not sure. Regardless, I love my job and what I get to do here because it’s fun, some of it has been new, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about critters that I didn’t know all that much about, and since mollusks are not exactly the stars of many Discovery channel specials, I am able to regale people with the wonders of squishy creatures of the deep.

bunny with snailYou might remember mollusks from a science class you had once upon a time. The first thing most people will mention are snails and clams, things with shells. This is somewhat correct. For the most part, mollusks have shells, and the variety of those shells between species and families is part of what helps make our collection so ridiculously huge.

Snails are only part of the collection, though, and there are both land snails and marine snails. The marine snails tend to be the more colorful pretty ones of the bunch, because the garden variety snail spends most of its time hiding from birds and other critters that might eat it. My personal favorite snails include Paryphantas (the Kauri snail), and Janthina (a pretty purple and white sea snail).

One of those predatory critters could actually be another mollusk, the slug. No, slugs don’t have a shell, but they are still mollusks. Since moving off the South Shore and into the Somerville area I’ve been amazed by the Leopard slug (Limax limax), which are all over the place.

Stopping at snails is really selling mollusks short. Aside from the little gastropod beauties, you have the cephalopods. I already mentioned the Nautilus, which is loosely associated with this group, but let’s be clear, they’re living fossils so they don’t fit nicely anywhere. Other cephalopods include Sepia (cuttlefish), and the most notorious octopus and squid.bunny with octopus

The octopus is such a neat little creature because they can fit through nearly anything, they hold onto things, and they’re just so flexible. I’d have to say that I’m a big fan of the giant octopus, since they seem to have little challenge eating something as crazy as a shark. The other interesting octopod I’ve gotten to see is Argonautus, otherwise known as the paper nautilus. The females have these awesome thin shells that feel like glass.

That brings us to the squid. There have been a lot of news stories in the last year about Architeuthis (the giant squid), since they’ve finally been somewhat caught on film. I’ll be really excited when we manage to get extended footage of the critters on film, because I’d love to know what their behavior is like. All we know is that they’re awfully fast. My personal favorite “squid” actually lies somewhere between cuttlefish and squid, but Eupryma scolopes (bobtail squid) is so adorable, and glows!

bunny with squid

That brings us to the wonderous bivalves. Actually, I don’t have a whole lot fun to say about them because, while they are everywhere and have lots of variation, they just aren’t as thrilling as the other mollusks. Still, there are the scallops, clams, and oysters to excite anyone who finds them intriguing. Shipworms are actually small clams that have worm-like elongated bodies that eat away at wood like a marine termite. I have a bulletin board at my desk that is framed by clam-eaten wood, and it’s swiss cheese nature is quite an interesting look.

In my year and a half here in the department I’ve had the chance to handle almost everything we have in the alcohol collection (except for the Nautilus, because we only have one and I didn’t rehouse him), and my current project is working with Atlantic deep sea bivalves. They’re tiny and not really much worth showing off. My days are spent looking at tiny vials with tiny specimens in them, counting them, cataloguing them, and then re-housing them at modern day curatorial standards for a wet collection. I suppose that may not sound like the most exciting thing in the world to some people, but it’s sort of like a library but with actual critters instead of books, and occasionally much less information. I’m at the tail end of the project, and then I will help move part of the dry collection (meaning shells) into new cabinets.

Maybe it’s not everyone’s greatest dream to spend extended amounts of time in a museum. I had never really thought of it as a dream, but it is a very fulfilling and rewarding experience as far as jobs go.

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