’81, of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences,
uses online databases to keep track of mollusks such as zebra
mussels on a native mussel, below, and a snail from Jamaica
that looks like an icicle.
courtesy Gary Rosenberg ’81)
November 7, 2007:
PROFILE - Gary Rosenberg ’81 Organizing the world’s
Gary Rosenberg ’81 is surrounded by shells in the museum
of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. They are housed
in a labyrinth of grayish-white cabinets that shelter a collection
of roughly 10 million shells and other mollusks, including snail
shells he collected from Jamaica that look like white icicles and
black-striped zebra mussels that he found in Ukraine. Chair-man
of the academy’s malacology (i.e., mollusk) department, Rosenberg
collects, names, and organizes shells and looks to them for clues
to environmental and evolutionary questions.
Until 10 years ago, much of the information about mollusks —
which range from minuscule clams and snails to large and intelligent
octopuses — was locked up in books that were generally accessible
only to specialists, says Rosenberg. Pictures, descriptions, and
information about habits, habitats, and geographic ranges of species
often were not included in the field guides used by amateurs.
In an effort to democratize the field, Rosenberg has been using
databases and interactive online keys to place knowledge at the
fingertips of scientists, students, and hobbyists.
In 1990, Rosenberg began creating the first online mollusk database,
called Malacolog, in order to store information about mollusks in
one place and, more importantly, because he had a difficult time
knowing if certain specimens already had been found and classified.
Today, Malacolog (www.malacolog.org) includes data on more than
6,000 snails, slugs, and other mollusks that reside between Antarctica
Last year, Malacolog helped Rosenberg and his colleagues examine
an evolutionary question: Whether large-bodied animals become smaller
and small-bodied animals become larger when they colonize the deep
sea. This evolutionary change in size has been observed among elephants
on islands, and by analyzing data in Malacolog, the scientists found
that this also happens to mollusks in the deep sea.
Rosenberg also has helped develop an interactive key to the land
snails of Jamaica that gives Jamaica’s scientists and citizens
a simple way to identify species living in their own backyard.
Collecting and organizing shells have been lifelong interests
for Rosenberg. As a 5-year-old, he carried buckets of clamshells
back from the New Jersey beaches he visited with his grandparents.
His collector’s instinct also prodded him to amass stamp and
coin collections, and he regularly gathered rocks and acorns on
his way home from school. But a passion for shells stuck. Rosenberg,
who majored in geo-logy at Princeton, says, “I’m pursuing
a hobby that became a profession. I still enjoy working with the
shells because of their beauty.”
Rosenberg is contemplating tackling a global list of all the known
mollusks. Species can serve as early alerts of environmental changes,
but, as Rosenberg says, “If you can’t identify the species,
you’re going to miss the warning signs.”
By Sabina Borza
Sabina Borza is an editor and freelance writer based in New