The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum has opened its new “living exhibits” – the final phase of its major expansion – as part of its mission to raise awareness of and educate the public on mollusks.

On March 1, “Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks” opened to visitors. Adding living animal aquariums to its world-renowned shell collection, the new experience sharpens the focus on mollusks – the live animals that create the shells prized by beachgoers and collectors. The expansion consists of 11 aquarium exhibits, two 15-foot-long touch tanks, and interactive interpretive exhibits.

Marine biologist Rebecca Mensch, curator of the new exhibit, explained that there are about 8,000 mollusk species and they include non-shelled creatures like octopus, squid, cuttlefish and more.

There are also three wet-dry tanks, which feature the live animals and their shell specimens in a side-by-side split comparison. The junonia, tiger shell cowrie and donkey’s ear abalone are showcased.

The new exhibit also features non-shell mollusks or cephalopods, such as flamboyant cuttlefish, two-spot octopus and a giant Pacific octopus – which can typically grow to 15 feet across. To educate about bivalve farming and overharvesting, there are tanks with nautiluses, flame scallops, oysters and more.

The intent is to teach visitors to become informed consumers.

“It’s really important to find out what species it is, where it came from and how it was harvested,” Mensch said in reference to buying seashells and the shell trade. “So you’re not depleting wild stocks.”

The exhibit also showcases two touch tanks that let people get their hands wet as they explore the world of mollusks. One tank is cold-water and features Pacific-Northwest species like gumboot chiton, Lewis’ moon snail, swimming scallop, California sea hare and red turban snail, while the other contains local warm-water ones like lightning whelk, horse and fighting conch, shark eye and lettered olive.

The walk-though gallery concludes with information about conservation, research and education.

For more information, visit or 239-395-2233.


The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is at 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel.