Marine Mollusks from the Wisner Shell Collection

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Marine shells are wonders of life, evolution, symmetry, and beauty that have captured the human imagination for millennia. Shells—the hard exoskeletons created by mollusks and other animals to protect themselves—first appear in the fossil record about 500 million years ago. Since then, marine shells have evolved into an amazing array of shapes, textures, and colors intricately adapted to the specific environments in which each species lived. For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors have collected shellfish for food. Only in the past 150,000 years, however, have shells been used for other purposes: as beads, ornaments, symbols, and money; as sources of dye, pigments, and lime (CaCo3); and as raw materials for making a wide range of tools. As the field of natural history became popular in western societies, shells also became objects of study, pleasure, and obsession for numerous collectors. Many families of marine shells have similar characteristics worldwide, so that cowries, cockles, and other types can be recognized on beaches from Australia to Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Here we present images of a small sample of marine shells from the Herbert P. Wisner Shell Collection, donated to the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History in 1992. The Wisner collection contains over 6,200 specimens from around the world, most of them marine, but also including some freshwater, land, and tree snail shells. Curated under MNCH Accession #818, the collection was purchased in the 1960s by Edmund Wisner from the estate of Fred Tobleman of Loch Arbour, New Jersey, then added to over the years by Blanche Kortright. The museum also has other marine shell collections of biological, paleontological, archaeological, and ethnographic origin. These are used by a variety of researchers interested in the history and evolution of shells, including their use by humans. Text by Jon Erlandson, photography by Chris White, and web development by Keith Hamm. Images © UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Production of this gallery was generously supported by The Ford Family Foundation.

Further Reading:

Eisenberg, J.M.
1981   A Collector's Guide to Seashells of the World. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stix, Hugh, Marguerite Stix, and R. Tucker Abbott
1968   The Shell: Five Hundred Million Years of Inspired Design. New York: Abrams.


Cellana nigrolineata, Cellana argentata
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Zoila decipiens, Cypraea pantherina, Lyncina lynx
2 of 16
Conas magus, Conas textile, Conas capitaneus
3 of 16
Mitra papalis
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Scaphella junoni, Cymbiola vespertilio, H. arausiaca
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Chicoreus brevifrons, Murex occa, V. elenensis
6 of 16
Haliotis kamtschatkana
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Mimachlamys crassicostata and Pecten jacobaeus
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Tellina radiata, Tellina perrieri
9 of 16
Pinctada margaretifera
10 of 16
Barnea costata
11 of 16
Hinnites multirugosus
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Atrina rigida
13 of 16
Muricanthus radix
14 of 16
Macrocallista nimbosa
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Dinocardium robustum, Trachycardium egmontianum
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