Forty-seven years ago, celebrated shell collector Jack Lightbourn hauled a new species up with his large catch of mollusks off the coast of Bermuda. The prime sample of the species, later named C. lightbourni, was sent to the Delaware Museum of Natural History in the mid-1970s and studied by a graduate student several years later – before mysteriously disappearing from the collection.
Rumors flew as researchers and shell enthusiasts speculated for decades about the shell’s whereabouts. Most concluded that the specimen fell into the wrong hands of a private collector, hidden from the public access otherwise afforded in an academic setting. And then Bill Fenzan arrived at the Museum with the shell in his pocket.
“I could not believe Bill had found this long-lost specimen, which has tremendous scientific value for the Museum’s collections,” said Curator of Mollusks Liz Shea, Ph.D. “This is an extremely rare shell only found in Bermuda, and I wasn’t sure that we’d ever recover this specimen or unravel what happened.”
The shell’s long and winding journey to the Museum’s permanent collection started in the early 1970s when Lightbourn and Arthur T. Guest developed an effective new way to collect gastropod shells: by trapping the hermit crabs who lived inside the shells with baited lobster traps. The specimens harvested in Bermuda by the two conchologists were well known in mollusk circles, and many new species were discovered based on the findings. Lightbourn sent many specimens to his colleagues at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.
A University of Miami graduate student, Ed Petuch, regularly visited the Museum’s collection at that time and wrote the original description of C. lightbourni, which was eventually published after considerable delay in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in 1986.
In the meantime, the shell vanished. Over the years, Museum curators tried to piece together the location of the missing shell without success. They wrote letters to Ed Petuch, queried an online listserv, and asked researchers and shell collectors for help, but nothing was ever resolved.