Marine shells have captured the human imagination for millennia. Shells—the hard, protective exoskeletons created by mollusks and other animals—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 museum in 1992. The 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 expanded over the years with specimens donated by Blanche Kortright.
The museum's other marine shell collections emphasize fossil specimens and cultural uses across thousands of years. These are used by a variety of researchers interested in the evolution of shells, marine ecosystems, human foodways, and more.
Images © UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Production of this gallery was generously supported by The Ford Family Foundation.
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