Scientist pursues snails in Pacific

The University researcher traveled to an island to study the invertebrates.

Drew Geraets

Ellen Strong does the dirty work at the University, dealing with slimy and spineless creatures every day.

Strong, an invertebrates researcher, talked about her travels to a small island on the Great Barrier Reef with approximately 15 people last week as part of the Bell Museum of Natural History’s travelogue program.

The series gave researchers an opportunity to talk about their adventures in exotic locations.

Last summer, Strong left Minnesota to find organisms most people would rather avoid.

Unlike the average beachcomber, she was not after spiral shells. Strong searched for what lies within: snails.

“I’m interested in the slimy and gooey stuff inside of that shell,” she said.

Strong journeyed along the Australian coast. During her trip, she said, she collected the rubbery organisms from rocky tide pools and sandy beaches lining the Pacific Ocean.

She said she conducted her research in the transparent blue waters of the Pacific, all the while knowing that the most beautiful environments can sometimes be the most threatening.

“There are a lot of things down there that are dangerous – snakes, fish, spiders, crocs,” said Strong, the Bell Museum’s invertebrates curator.

She said the poisonous organisms from Down Under were worrisome and often in the back of her mind.

Her father reminded her when she forgot.

“He would watch National Geographic or the Discovery Channel and ask me: ‘Did you know there are sea snakes down there?’ ” she said. “I had to ban him from watching those channels.”

Strong said she collected her snails with little trouble, but an Australian graduate student was not so lucky.

“She said something grabbed her leg,” Strong said, recounting one outing as they sifted through seaweed for snails. “Here, a big octopus had reached out his tentacle arm and grabbed her ankle.”

From the mainland, Strong flew to her final destination, Lizard Island, off the coast of Australia. After arriving at the airport – a bamboo hut – she settled into the research station.

Strong spent 10 days on the island, collecting hundreds of samples from 35 snail species.

“I was getting really muddy, all for the sake of science,” she said.

Strong said she looks at the internal structures of various snails, noting their differences.

She quickly learned how Lizard Island earned its name, Strong said.

Geckos dotted the walls in the morning and another lizard regularly visited the station’s footbath – a giant clamshell – for a drink, she said.

The trip challenged her to learn new skills, such as driving a boat, and provided a wealth of new specimens to study, she said.

Strong said she is happy to share that experience with others.

Gordon Murdock, the Bell Museum’s curator of education, said the talk series gave people the opportunity to see researchers in action.

“The Bell (Museum) is so blessed to have people like Ellen who enjoy talking to the public,” he said. “She really enjoys and loves it.”