Athens, Ga. – A new exhibition at the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology showcases the beauty and diversity of the Georgia Museum of Natural History’s collection of bivalve mollusks.
The exhibit, Mollusca: Bivalvia, features highlights of the museum’s collection of more than 15,000 bivalves, a group of mollusks that includes clams, oysters and mussels. Bivalves, named for their hinged two-part shells, or “valves,” are found all over the world in both marine and freshwater environments.
Besides their economic value as a food source for people—nearly $24 billion a year, according to a 2018 estimate—they provide many other important services. As filter-feeders, they help keep aquatic environments clean by removing phytoplankton, bacteria and other contaminants from the water. They can also help stabilize shorelines and reduce erosion, sequester carbon, serve as food for some aquatic organisms and provide habitat for others.
These were just some of the reasons that John Wares, a professor of genetics and ecology and the museum’s curator of aquatic invertebrates and genomics, wanted to focus the exhibition on bivalves.
“I knew that our collections had some extraordinary shells,” Wares said. “And it occurred to me that the whole group of bivalves, even though there’s a lot of diversity there, they all represent this one really straightforward feeding strategy that has huge ecological relevance, and a tremendous amount of diversity and a tremendous amount of beauty.”
Specimens on view include oyster fossils dating to the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, as well as the shells of giant clams from the Indo-West Pacific Ocean, scallops from the Caribbean, a mussel from Siberia, oysters from Zaire, angel wing clams from Edisto Island, SC, and freshwater mussels from Georgia’s Flint and Altamaha Rivers. Many of the specimens were gifts from collectors, while others were obtained as part of scientific research.
Each section of the exhibit contains explanatory text and QR codes linking to more information.
“This is a great opportunity for the museum to be able to showcase not only what we have but what we do,” said Wares.
One example is a section on threats to bivalves, with a focus on freshwater mussels. The southeastern U.S. is home to more than 300 species—roughly 160 in Georgia alone—but more than 70% of these are listed as threatened or endangered. As the accompanying text explains, because “freshwater diversity is declining globally, each set of specimens represents an opportunity to learn and address these losses.”
The Georgia Museum of Natural History is home to the most comprehensive collections of natural and archaeological materials in the state. With more than five million specimens and artifacts, it is a major resource for research, teaching, and public service and outreach.
Wares appreciated the opportunity to exhibit the bivalve collection in the Odum School, especially because the museum’s display gallery, located in the Natural History building on Cedar Street, is temporarily closed while a new exhibit is installed.
“The next exhibit in the museum display gallery will be called ‘This Place We Call Georgia,’” he said. “It will be very focused on Georgia diversity, Georgia ecoregions, from the mountains all the way through to Gray’s Reef.” It is due to open later in the fall.
Mollusca: Bivalvia is on view in the display cabinets in the lobby of the Odum School of Ecology through Dec. 23, 2021. The ecology building is open to the public from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Everyone is encouraged to wear face coverings while inside campus facilities.