I’m a malacologist: a scientist who studies mollusks—animals like squids and octopuses, snails and slugs, and clams and mussels. Specifically, I’m a research zoologist and curator of Bivalvia (the class of mollusks with two shells joined by a ligament hinge) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I oversee the nation’s collection of bivalves, and I use those specimens to test hypotheses about bivalve evolution, ecology, and conservation.
Malacologists are as varied as the animals they study. Some malacologists work in academia, like at a college or university; others work for state or federal agencies; and still others work within an industry or for nonprofits. And we work in all types of settings: in museums, on ships at sea, in hatcheries, in molecular labs, and in the classroom.
Yes, being a malacologist often requires traveling for fieldwork or museum work. This includes adventuring to farflung places on another side of the world, making discoveries in the woods and waters of your hometown, or examining preserved specimens in the world’s many natural history collections.
In freshwater ecosystems, dam construction is among the most harmful because it converts free-flowing rivers into artificial lakes. Many freshwater mollusks are well adapted to living in fast-flowing waters and cannot survive in these newly formed reservoirs, which essentially destroy all of the nearby suitable habitat. That’s one of numerous reasons why freshwater mollusks are declining.
My research focuses on freshwater mussels, one of the world’s more threatened groups of animals. Understanding their evolution and ecology can be useful in designing more effective ways to protect freshwater mussel biodiversity. Having a better appreciation for how these animals are related or how they reproduce helps us prioritize which species may be in greatest need of conservation.
My lab uses molecular tools, especially DNA sequencing, to better understand freshwater mussel diversity and distribution. These genetic insights are useful in providing a framework to address which populations or geographic areas may be the most important to conserve or protect.
I spent most of my childhood waterlogged from endless hours of swimming and fishing. At the time, I was more interested in skipping freshwater mussels than in studying their evolution, but that’s where I first developed my interest in freshwater biodiversity (the variety of life on Earth).
During an undergraduate biodiversity course, I was introduced to the amazing adaptations that freshwater mussels use to complete their life cycle: essentially, they trick different fish species into carrying around their parasitic larvae. I’ve been hooked ever since.
It depends. Much of the field or laboratory work in malacology is done by individuals with, or pursuing, bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Folks running their own research labs tend to have a Ph.D. But you can also be a malacologist, of sorts, by simply selling seashells by the seashore.
Find a mentor. Many malacologists are eager to help foster the next generation of scientists in their field, and they’re often looking for volunteers, interns, or graduate students to mentor. I was very fortunate to have several enthusiastic and encouraging malacological mentors along the way, and they made all the difference.
Long, cold, and wet days in the field; frustrations of learning new laboratory and computing techniques; and emails, emails, and more emails. But in the end, those field days build character and better datasets; those new techniques become second nature; and those emails… well, they’re still emails.
On any given day, you can make a new discovery. It may be new to just you or new to the world, small or big, downright weird or practically important.
For example, colleagues and I have found several new species of freshwater mussels. Finding some of them required traveling to remote places on the other side of the world, while others were hiding in plain sight in the rivers of our backyards. We used DNA sequencing to determine that what was once thought to be a widespread species was actually a collection of several restricted and distinct species.
The best thing about being a malacologist is learning about mollusks and sharing that information with others.
Patricia Tate, "Malacologist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2020.