New Hall at HMNS Dives into the Importance of Malacology

Without Mollusks, Life Would Cease to Exist

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is bringing back the George W. Strake Hall of Malacology with a splash. Visitors to the hall will find it freshly renovated with over 1,300 shell and marine life specimens and a heavy focus on ocean conservation.

Malacology is the study of mollusks — invertebrate creatures with soft, unsegmented bodies, many of which house themselves in shells. This fascinating and highly diverse group of animals includes more than 100,000 species, ranging in size from snails so small that we can barely see them to giant squids more than 60 feet long. 

Shells are undeniably beautiful with cascading colors, various textures and complex patterns, but as HMNS malacology curator Tina Petway reminds us, “This is not just about pretty shells. This is about human’s reliance on the ocean’s resources.” The hall focuses on the habitats of mollusks and their places within the ocean’s ecosystem. Mollusks are a very important part of the marine environment. In fact, without mollusks, life might cease to exist. They serve as a food source for 80% of the world, and fishes’ predation of them is one of the primary bases of ocean life. The exhibit highlights this with a dive into the food and cultural uses of shells. 

Ocean conservation is an important aspect of the hall.

Protecting and preserving the environment where mollusks live is imperative for their continued survival. The hall features a video by local artist Erik Hagen titled, “The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What’s our excuse?”

Based on data from Peter Clark of Oregon State University, the piece shows sea level rise from Galveston to the Woodlands through year 2550, given low and high estimates of future emissions. Guests see the water encroaching across downtown Houston and HMNS denuded of all buildings except for the partially transparent and almost ghostly skyscrapers evoking the current era. Beyond the collaboration with Hagen, the hall also outlines things that individuals can do to help preserve the marine environment. 

Favorites from the previous iteration of the hall returns, accompanied by new and never-before-displayed specimens. The record breaking Australian Trumpet is displayed alongside a smaller, but still impressively large, albino morph of the species. Also returning from display in our Curator’s Choice exhibit is a large piece of partially polished black coral from the Philippines, which is accompanied by a completely natural specimen of black coral from Peru.

Together, the two coral specimens demonstrate life on the reef, an ecosystem that is rapidly disappearing due to many factors such as rising global temperatures, infestations of coral-devouring star fish, chemical runoff from rivers and ocean acidification.  These are helped along by Mother Nature’s own hurricanes, cyclones and devastating storms that destroy coral reef habitats.

Among the 1,300 specimens included in the hall are incredibly rare shells, such as Cymatium armatum, a shell that Petway says, “if you asked malacologists for a list of their 10 most rare shells, this one would be on every list.” Another case will also be dedicated to 33 Tahitian south sea pearls and the shells that produce them. Thirteen different kinds of pearls will be included. 

The malacology collection at the Houston Museum of Natural Science boasts a huge shell collection, totaling nearly 1.5 million specimens, the largest collection held by the museum. Its scientific significance is apparent as the collection is often used for research by local universities and Texas Parks & Wildlife.

The George W. Strake Hall of Malacology opened on August 30, 2019 with the finest specimens from the museum’s collection and is included in the permanent exhibit hall admission. For ticket prices or more information visit our website at or call (713) 639-4629.