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VIDEO: B.C. man donates 140,000 mollusk specimens to biodiversity museum

UBC’s Beaty museum grateful for Bill Merilees’s historical record of B.C. marine biodiversity

A Nanaimo man’s 140,000-specimen mollusk collection has found a new home at a B.C. biodiversity museum.

Bill Merilees, a retired B.C. Parks regional information officer, collected mollusk shells ranging from large clams to tiny snails found on the B.C. shorelines for nearly 50 years. In that time he amassed and catalogued more than 140,000 shells, and possibly the most extensive collection of micro mollusks ever gathered from B.C.’s coast. 

Merilees’s interest in mollusks was sparked when he was five years old by his father who gave him a clam shell, but his hobby of collecting shells took off after he moved to Nanaimo in 1978.

“I really had a glorious opportunity, because my job with B.C. Parks took me up and down the Island, all over the place…” he said. “I’d have this spoon and I’d find a nice rock at low tide and scrape all the slime and goop off it, put it into a plastic bag and bring it home and put it in [my wife’s] freezer, which of course, wasn’t very popular.”

Merilees would thaw the samples, screen out shells between one and five millimetres in size and then ,with a pair of watchmaker’s forceps, sit for hours peering through a microscope and picking out the “micro mollusks” which he’d preserve in vials.

“This came about in an interesting way,” Merilees said. “What the Canadian Wildlife Service were trying to find out was what some of our shorebirds are feeding on. They’d analyze the stomach [contents], but they had nothing to identify the little snails they found, so I started gravitating to getting smaller, smaller and finally ended up getting down to what I call micro mollusks.”

Merilees gathered specimens from Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and Washington state, accompanied at times by his friend, marine biologist Rick Harbo.

Merilees’s collection, stored in wooden cabinets he built, fills a bedroom in his Departure Bay-area home. Vials containing micro mollusks fill just one of dozens of cabinet drawers, yet account for about 126,000 of the estimated 140,000-specimen collection. Each sample is accompanied by particulars, such as date, time, location, tide conditions, surface type (rock or sand), size of scraping, number of species and how many of each were found. He also used methods to preserve specimen DNA, which might one day help further species identification efforts.

“People would say, ‘you silly bugger,’ and I’d say, ‘you’re quite right, I’m bloody crazy, absolutely stupid,’ but the fact is nobody in B.C. has ever done anything quite like this…” he said. “What you’ve got here is a snapshot in time of a particular day, particular tide, season … You could go back to these areas in the future and you can do a comparison and no one has ever, to my knowledge, in British Columbia or even on the west coast of North America, done something quite like that.”

Merilees said some of his specimens are new to the field of mollusk study, but haven’t been formally recognized. Samples were sent to James Hamilton McLean, a malacologist and former curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who included some of them in a 2,000-page monograph he compiled. Unfortunately McLean died in 2016 before it could be published.

Merilees, now 81, stopped making collection trips in 2020, but he hopes his donation, bound for the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum, will become a learning resource for future biology students.

Sheila Byers, a marine biologist and former interpreter for the Beaty museum, and Colin MacLeod, a zoologist with UBC’s Biodiversity Research Centre and museum curatorial assistant, spent Tuesday, July 20, packing up Merilees’s collection. It will be stored in isolation for three weeks to prevent any potential insect infestation from escaping into the museum before it is catalogued into the museum’s online database and some of it will be put on display.

Merilees’s collection, the two scientists said, is important for making comparisons between species in collection locations 50 years ago versus today and to help people understand the huge diversity of local marine life.

“A lot of people don’t realize how beautiful and diverse local species can be, so I think this collection gives a huge opportunity to understand their own marine life by this hugely diverse collection,” Byers said.

She said Merilees did an “amazing job” of record-keeping.

“Another key thing is just the amazing amount of data Bill has associated with these specimens,” MacLeod said. “In terms of climate change or any large-scale change to the ocean, having a date of collection associated means that we can go back to that site and collect again and maybe that species will have disappeared as ranges shift, caused by climate change or harvesting … so just having these reference points back in time are invaluable for museums and also for conservation biologists who want to record how things are changing.”

Merilees’s wish for his collection to be become a teaching resource will also be realized.

“There’s so many interesting species in here – some not described – that it’s going to make really cool research projects for a lot of students at UBC too,” Byers said.

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Bill Merilees, a retired B.C. Parks regional information officer, collected mollusk shells from B.C. and Washington state coastlines for 50 years and has donated his 140,000-specimen collection to University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Sheila Byers, marine biologist and former interpreter for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, and Colin MacLeod, zoologist with UBC’s Biodiversity Research Centre and museum curatorial assistant, prepare Bill Merilees’s mollusk shell collection for transport to Vancouver this past Tuesday, July 20. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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