In its first year, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Science Pub series has introduced the bar-hopping set to the world of birds, bugs, and early humans, but bivalves — clams, scallops, mussels, cockles and oysters — were November’s focus.
The museum’s curator of Malacology (or, the study of mollusks), Paul Valentich-Scott, gave his audience a glimpse into the, lives and impacts of bivalve mollusks during the fourth installment of the Science Pub series on November 7 at Daragan’s Pub.
“This is a way to attract young, educated adults that don’t see a need to go to the museum because they don’t have kids,” said Head of Invertebrate Zoology Michael Caterino. The Science Pub and café idea has been growing across the United States over the past few years, and this is the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s first season.
“We’re always frustrated when people don’t know what we do, so we started doing this to show people our research,” said Valentich-Scott.
Science Pubs are about connecting research to the public in an accessible way, and Valentich-Scott weaved seamlessly between the academic, practical, and even humorous aspects of his research.
“Biologists really like to talk about sex,” joked Valentich-Scott, as the crowd laughed. “Snail sex is amazing, but on the clam side we have orgies.”
In his presentation, “I Eat My Research,” Valentich-Scott quickly got down to practical and academic business. He began by describing headless aquatic mollusks with beautiful eyes and a mouth designed for filter feeding.
Once everyone was on the same page, he was able to discuss more practical matters and really connect his research to the public. Bivalves are most commonly thought of as culinary delicacies, which Valentich-Scott could not ignore. Much of their importance is tied to consumption. According to Valentich-Scott’s research, humans alone consume 31 billion pounds of bivalves a year, with commercial maturation only requiring 12 to 24 months.
Luckily, bivalves are a sustainable food source. The presentation explained that farmed clams, mussels, oyster and scallops, are abundant and well managed, while harvesting of wild clams, oysters, and sea scallops have a slight environmental impact.
It turns out that bivalves are actually quite interesting even when not eaten, and Valentich-Scott’s enthusiasm rubbed off on the crowd as he dropped one fun fact after another. For instance, bivalves come in extreme sizes, with clams sizing up anywhere between four feet and 1/32nd of an inch, and can live up to 150 years.
Bivalves are also environmental indicators. As filter feeders, they separate plankton from water, but they also ingest pollutants as they feed. These pollutants build up in the animal’s system. By testing bivalves, scientists can judge water health and identify pollutants. However, ordinary people collecting clams on a beach may not know what they’re up against and could ingest these pollutants.
Valentich-Scott cautioned all to heed pollution and seafood warnings, and, as a rule, avoid collecting clams in months without the letter, “R,” like May. Bivalves purchased from grocery stores and markets require testing before sale, so consumers should feel safe eating seafood from groceries and markets regardless of these all-important rules.
The Malacology department is continually evolving its understanding of mollusks while developing others’ knowledge. The department performs baseline studies to understand global habitats, leads training workshops around the world for new researchers, and discovers new species on a regular basis.
For more information about the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Science Pub series, check out sbnature.org.