Being Natural: Tina Petway

When Tina Petway, Associate Curator of Malacology, retired as a schoolteacher in 1999, she finally embarked on fulfilling her dream since she was 12 years old.

Growing up, Petway was frustrated by the lack of resources for young women interested in scientific careers.

“I was walking on the beach, and I ran into this lady who was picking up shells,” Petway said. “She invited me to come back to her house and her office. She gave me shells, Texas-collected shells. Absolutely brilliant lady.”

This lady was none other than Mildred Tate, a renowned malacologist who helped found the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences in Clute, Texas. Tate gave Petway rare specimens, many books, and a strong foundation for future adventures.


Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway pursued shell science later in life. Now she’s an asset to the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s malacology program, and she is full of stories.

Though Petway loved teaching, her passion was malacology. She had a brief stint as an interior decorator right after she finished school but then realized just how precious her shells were to her. The walls of model homes were too static for her, so Petway added some shells and coral specimens from her personal collection to liven things up.

“Well that went over really well and people wanted to buy them. I didn’t want to part with what I had! So that didn’t last too long,” Petway said.

She joined the Houston Shell Club (now the Houston Conchology Society) when she was 16 years old and never looked back. Soon, she was dragging her husband around all over the world looking for rare and exotic specimens. The couple met by coincidence near a family member’s bayhouse, and Petway knew they would get married after just a few months.

“I said, ‘I collect and buy seashells. I go places where there are shells, land snails, freshwater mollusks. That is my scope for life. If I take a vacation, it’s going to be some place like that. And I will continue to buy shells with money I earn. If that’s not ok, if you can’t deal with that, then let’s just be friends and forget this,’” Petway said. “And he said, ‘You know, if you can’t beat them, you join them.’ So he started buying shells, too! He’s as big a collector as I am.”

The pair were together on an uninhabited island in the Solomon Islands chain in 1972 when Petway had an encounter with a venomous cone snail, a group of gastropods that Petway says is her favorite family of mollusks. These snails are carnivores that use venomous barbs loaded with a cocktail of neurotoxins to kill prey. Even today, there is no antivenin. According to Petway, the way to survive is to load up on antihistamines so you keep breathing and use meat tenderizer to draw out the venom.


Petway discusses the anatomy of an octopus and other cephalopods in the Strake Hall of Malacology.

Petway was collecting specimens in small jars when she saw a cone snail scurrying along the reef. Recognizing it as venomous, she picked it up from the base with her right hand, pointing the aperture and barb down and away from her hand as she maneuvered to get a jar and open it.

At that time, another cone snail appeared, and Petway couldn’t resist. She transferred the snail to her other hand, picked up the new specimen and put it in the jar. At around that time, she felt a shooting pain in her left hand.

Petway looked at her left hand and saw that the cone snail had emerged, swung around and stung her on her pointer finger three times. She was 30 miles from the nearest airplane, three miles from the nearest habited island, and too far away for modern medicine to help. Of course, the first thing she did was put the snail in the jar for safe keeping; she still has it to this day.

“I thought, ‘Whoa, I don’t feel good.’ My head was hurting, my eyes were starting to get fuzzy, I was having a hard time breathing, my heart was pounding, and it was then that I accepted that, ‘Dang it, I’ve been stung!’” Petway said.

She hurried to the shore, took lots of antihistamines, wrapped meat tenderizer in a papaya leaf around her finger, and laid down. At that point, she was having difficulty walking, things were blurry, and her breathing was labored.

Petway thought, “‘Well if this is it, I went a really cool way.” What else can you say at a time like that?

The next day, the headache was still there, but her vision had cleared. The headache would remain for about a month, and it was over 10 years before Petway regained full use of her pointer finger.


Petway explains the features of the Australian trumpet shell, the single largest shell in the world and the crown jewel of the Strake Hall of Malacology. Petway estimates that the snail who made the shell was more than 100 years old.

Petway began volunteering at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 1999 when John Wise was the curator of the Strake Hall of Malacology. When Wise left in 2005, Vice President of Collections Lisa Rebori asked Petway if she could fill in for a while.

“I said sure, of course! At that point, I had been through the whole collection and had pretty much self-cataloged everything that we had and had even started rearranging,” Petway said. “I just kind of started one day a week helping out, and I’ve been here ever since, and you can’t run me off.

“I eat and sleep this job. I absolutely love what I do. I love coming into the museum every day.”

Petway has led the way in a massive undertaking to revamp the Strake Hall of Malacology. Already known around the world as the premier collection of shells, HMNS has over 2.5 million specimens in storage and is working on purchasing more. The new hall will feature more rare specimens and more educational information about mollusks and their habitats.

“There is so much to learn about these animals, and that’s what we want to teach in this new hall. They’re not just pretty, and they are beautiful, but the animals that makes the shells are even more beautiful,” Petway said.

Petway is very passionate about conservation efforts for the world’s oceans and is a strong believer that education is a great method to promote the importance of these habitats. She is hopeful that the new hall will help convey that message to future generations.

It’s something she’s been seeing her whole life.

Food chains link the creatures of coastal ecology

Don’t stick your hand in that shell! You don’t know who might be home. It could be a carnivorous snail or a “clawsome” crab. Take a look at our Texas state shell, the lightning whelk or left-handed whelk, which feeds on bivalves like oysters and clams. Perhaps the snail that makes the shell is still hiding inside, or perhaps the shell is home to a hermit crab. Unlike most crabs, hermit crabs use the shells of snails as homes to protect their soft bodies.

Hermit Crab

Hermit crab taking residence in an empty lightning whelk shell.

Texas is home to some fascinating creatures, and our coast is no exception. In addition to the Gulf side beaches, there are salt marshes, jetties and the bay to investigate. Our coastal habitats are just waiting to be explored, and with the right gear, you can see organisms at every trophic level. (You knew I was going to talk about food chains, didn’t you?) 


Lightning whelk snail retracted into its shell, operculum blocking the opening.

Most folks will notice some of the upper-level consumers: birds like pelicans and gulls. Who could miss the gull snatching your unattended hotdogs? Or the pelicans plummeting into the water face first to catch fish? Maybe you’ve noticed fishermen along the beach as they pull in small bonnethead sharks. Some animals may require good timing and tons of mosquito repellent to see, like our rare and critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. If you pay attention, there are even rattlesnakes catching mice that are feeding on insects and plants in the dunes!Food Web

As you follow a food pyramid from the apex down to the base, top predators like humans and sharks feed on the organisms in the level below. There you might find the larger bony fish we feed on, like redfish or snapper, and below them you can find some of the crustaceans and mollusks they feed on in turn. Crustaceans, like our blue crabs, stone crabs, and the smaller ghost crabs, often scavenge in addition to feeding on mollusks, worms, or even plant matter. Many of our mollusks are filter feeders, like oysters, pulling algae and plankton from the water. Finally, at the base of the food pyramid, there are the producers. The phytoplankton and algae make their own food with energy from the sun.

A food chain pyramid is a great way to show different types of food chains on one example. I used a pyramid created by my friend Julia and drew examples of food chains from our coast on it. One side has the trophic levels on it and the other three sides have example food chains. What’s on the bottom of the pyramid? The Sun, of course!Pyramid

Coastal ecology isn’t just about sand, shells, and dodging gulls. It’s also about the interactions between plants, animals, and their environment. The plants anchor the dunes, the dunes protect and replenish the beach sand, the sand houses animals like mole crabs and mantis shrimp, and we get to enjoy it when we protect it.

If tracking home beach sand in your shoes, car, towels, and suits doesn’t excite you, our new Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology may be just the air-conditioned trip to the coast you need on a scorching summer day in Texas. Members, come join us Memorial Day weekend to see wonders of the Texas coastline!

Mala-whaaa? Discover the incredible world of mollusks in the Strake Hall of Malacology

One of the most awesome parts of working for a Museum (especially one as large as ours) is how many people you get to meet and work with – all with something different that gets them excited about science! It’s easy to celebrate your inner geek when you can find fellow geeks who you can geek out with in a geeky fashion while geekily reveling in unique parts of the Museum.

You could ask anyone here and they’d be able to tell you which part of the Museum brings this out in me: the Strake Hall of Malacology.

“Mala-whaaaa?” you may ask.

Malacology is the study of mollusks, an incredible group of creatures that includes octopi, scallops, and my favorite, snails (but more on them later). They’re invertebrates belonging to the phylum Mollusca, and there are over 85,000 species of them in the world!

These invertebrates all have three features in common but are otherwise extremely diverse. They have a mantle containing a cavity used for breathing and excretion; a radula, which is used for feeding; and the same structure to their nervous systems, with two pairs of nerve chords: one serving the internal organs and another for locomotion.

Mollusks are also able to use their internal organs for multiple purposes. For example, their heart and kidneys are used in their reproductive, circulatory, and excretion systems.

Mollusks are more varied than any other phylum. Think about it: squids, octopi, cuttlefish, nautili, clams, mussels, oysters, conch, slugs, snails — they all have many diverse species and yet they’re all still mollusks! And this is due, in part at least, to how long they’ve been around. While there’s still significant scientific debate about their precise lineages, we know that they’ve been around since the Cambrian period (541 to 485 million years ago). This has allowed them to diversify to fit in many, many niches all around the world — from the depths of the ocean to mountain tops.

Now for my favorite: SNAILS! Perhaps it’s because of my name (Gary, like Spongebob’s pet snail) but I think snails are really cool. They account for 80% of mollusks, and are perhaps the most diverse of them all. They’re found everywhere, in part because some have evolved to have gills while others have lungs.

But that’s not all! Some species with gills can be found on land, others with lungs are found in freshwater — with a select few even found in marine environments! They’re in ditches, deserts, large bodies of water and everywhere in between. Most are herbivores, but there are also omnivores and predatory snails. They’re also found in many sizes, from giant African land snails 35 cm in length to some just 1.5 mm long.

So come to HMNS to the Strake Hall of Malacology to learn everything there is about these marvelous mollusks!

The Formation and Preservation of the Solnhofen Fossils

Our new Archaeopteryx exhibition has stunning complete fossils of fish, turtles, crocodiles, shrimp, sharks and much more, all from Solnhofen, Germany. In this blog, Dr. Bakker explains why Solnhofen produced and preserved so many spectacular, intact specimens.

The Mystery of Tropical Germany

From the first diggings in the late 1700’s,  Solnhofen presented a profound puzzle: Why was  Germany tropical in the Jurassic?

The fossil evidence was perplexing:

Amiopsis Lepidota

Big, long-lived reefs grow only in the tropics – how could northern Europe have supported the Solnhofen reef?

Large crocodiles thrive only in the warmest climate – how could giant sea-crocodiles flourish at Solnhofen?

Huge tree ferns today are emphatically warmth-loving plants – how could tropical ferns grow luxuriously at Solnhofen?

The mystery was world-wide. In the Jurassic, big crocodilians, tree ferns and reefs had spread all over Europe, Asia and North America. The tropical belt must have extended into Alaska and far south into Argentina.

Solnhofen was part of the proof that the Jurassic was one of the warmest periods in the history of life. Since the end of the Jurassic, on average Europe and North America suffered a gradual decrease in winter warmth.

Solnhofen – A Real Jurassic Park

Big-Budget movies have made the Jurassic Period  the most famous sector of geological time in our modern world. But in fact, the Jurassic was already world-renowned by the 1830’s. The first carnivorous dinosaurs known from good skeletons came from the Jurassic of Oxford. The first dinosaur tracks discovered in abundance were from the Jurassic of Massachusetts. The first complete skeletons of giant sea-reptiles were excavated from the Jurassic of southern England.

But no locale has gave finer fossils from the Jurassic than Solnhofen, Germany. Beginning in the mid 1700’s, Solnhofen has provided a never-ending stream of petrified animals and plants.

Liodesmus Sprattiformis

The exquisite skeletons lie in lithographic limestone, a rock that records not only bones but  impressions of skin and other soft tissue. Vertebrate bodies are preserved in exceptional detail. The pterodactyls at Solnhofen often have fossilized wing membranes. Crustaceans and mollusks are often fossilized as complete bodies. Even the most delicate  parts of squid – tentacles, eyes, and ink sacs – are recorded as high-resolution impressions.

Solnhofen lithographic stone has captured a more complete picture of Jurassic life than any other kind of sediment. Fossils are not common – hundreds of rocks slabs must be split to expose a single animal. Fortunately, the discovery of fossils is encouraged by commercial interests. Beginning in 1798, the lithographic stone has been quarried to make stone plates used to print high-resolution images of paintings, etchings and, later, photographs.

Many scientific publications about Solnhofen fossils have been illustrated by drawings of specimens reproduced via lithographic limestone plates.

Why are Solnhofen fossils so magnificent? The environment  around a tropical reef  was perfect for preservation. Reef-building organisms – sponges, microbes, corals – built up an arc of hard calcium carbonate that shielded a quiet lagoon. All manner of salt-water fish and invertebrates hunted for food in the upper warm waters. Land-living animals came to the beach to search for washed-up carcasses. In the air flew ‘dactyls and, on occasion, a  bird.

When an animal died and sank to the bottom of the lagoon, the water chemistry offered protection from  the forces of decay and dismemberment. The hot tropical climate concentrated the salts in the quietest part of the lagoon, so that most decomposers – organisms that would destroy the carcass – were kept away. Salt-loving microbes spread a thin film over the bottom, and this film functioned like a death-shroud, further protecting the body of dead animals. Perfect fossils were formed when the microbial mat excluded every crab, snail and  bottom-living shark that would otherwise destroy the body.

Extinct Sea Turtle
Eurysternum Wagleri

Solnhofen brings to us a picture of half-way evolution. The rich fish fauna was being modernized by natural selection. Old-fashioned armored fish were going extinct. New styles of jaws and fins were being developed among what would become the dominant fish families in the modern world. Many Solnhofen fish were living-fossils in their own day, representing evolutionary designs that had first appeared two hundred million years earlier. Other Solnhofen fish were the first successful members of clans that dominate today.

Pterodactyls and sea-reptiles too were about half-way in their Darwinian trajectory. Sea-turtles had not yet evolved their specialized flipper. Sea-crocodiles were about to suffer extinction and replacement by the new ocean-going species of the Cretaceous Period. Crustaceans were starting the wave of evolution that would continue as modern crabs and shrimp and lobsters.

There collection displayed here in our exhibit is one of the finest samplings of the entire Solnhofen biota. The Archaeopteryx at the center of the exhibit is the only Archaeopteryx in the New World.