5 minutes with Dr John Healy, Curator of Marine Biodiversity (Molluscs)

Today’s #CouchCurator is Dr John Healy, Curator of Marine Biodiversity (Molluscs) who is sharing some of his favourite items from the collection.

What is your favourite species in the collection and why?

My favourite molluscan object in the collection would probably be the Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) because both the shell and the rarely photographed living animal are both very attractive. This species has a wide distribution throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans yet is not very common anywhere and deserves full protection from collection (fully protected in Queensland waters, as is the Giant Helmet and Giant Clams). The Giant Triton occurs on the Great Barrier Reef and research has shown that it feeds on starfish, including the Crown-of – Thorns starfish, and that chemicals exuded by the triton trigger a flight response in starfish. Owing to its beauty, the Giant Triton is often depicted in paintings from the past, and cultures from as far ago as the Bronze Age have celebrated the graceful shape of triton shells (e.g. the carved  stone triton from the Minoan Palace of Mallia, north-eastern coast of Crete). Our preserved animal of the Giant Triton never fails to draw a crowd – many people have never seen the animal and it comes as a shock that such a spectacular shell should be made by a sea snail.

Do you have any interesting facts about the Molluscs Collection at the museum?

Biggest item in the Mollusca collection would be the Giant Squid (Architeuthis dux) which, with its two feeding arms at full stretch, would be about 4.5 metres in length.  Our largest mollusc shell in the collection would be our giant clams, with some specimens reach almost a metre in length.

Smallest molluscs in the collection include many of the tiny land snail species from Queensland (pin-wheel snails or family Charopidae) as well as pelagic sea snails such as the pteropods (sea butterflies). In both cases numerous species can be only a few millimetres in shell length.

Queensland Museum has one of the largest collection of land snails in Australia, and in recent years we have also greatly boosted our marine mollusc collection through important donations of collections  (and are in the process of still doing so)

Among the strangest molluscs we have in the collection are the ‘worm snails’ (family Vermetidae). After settling on a hard surface, the coiled larval shell soon gives rise to a ‘uncoiled’ adult shell, superficially very similar to that of many marine worms, hence their common name. I am currently carrying out research on these with an international team of experts, which hopefully will help to sort out the complex taxonomy of vermetids and how the various genus relate to each other. Vermetids are often mistaken for tube-dwelling worms and vice versa.

Our rarest molluscan item in the Queensland Museum Collection would be the Giant Squid. Although the species is probably not rare, and appears to occur widely throughout wold oceans, the fact that it inhabits depths of 500-2000 metres means that it is rarely collected and even more rarely seen alive.  In terms of our molluscan shells, our rarest species would have to include several of the newly described land snails, some known from from only one or two specimens.

Our most common molluscan specimens would probably be some of the species of cowries such as the gold-ring cowrie (Monetaria annulus), which has a very wide distribution throughout the Indo-Pacific region. It is often used in creating traditional art and objects in Melanesia and throughout other areas of the tropics. It’s even common in Moreton Bay.

Tell us a little bit about your area and why do you love it?

My main areas of expertise are focussed on classification of marine molluscs and aspects of the evolutionary history of those molluscs. I have worked on all seven living classes of molluscs, but principally on bivalves (molluscs with two shell valves), gastropods (snails and slugs), tusk shells (scaphopods) and cephalopods (Nautilus, squid, octopus and cuttlefish). Currently most of my work deals with bivalves and gastropods, and mainly with comparative cell ultrastructure (electron microscope work) – the sort of work I do complements anatomical, shell and molecular research. I have been doing electron microscopy for about 40 years and taxonomy for almost 30 years. I have also been increasingly spending time on historical aspects of malacology, including studies of our early Australian workers and specimens of historic importance.

What is your favourite thing about your role at the museum? Why?

The one thing I love doing at the museum is assisting public inquiries about objects they have found.  We get some rather odd things washing up on beaches, and it is always a pleasure to be able to help someone identify what they have found and also help them interpret it – whether it be a worn, broken or pretty shell or a strange  egg case.  I try to be as informative as I can when I identify material and in most cases I get very grateful replies. Folk are often thrilled to know what they’ve found and I’m always really interested in seeing these things.

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Interested in learning more about John? View his profile here.