In Each Shell a Story

When Geerat Vermeij was in fourth grade, his teacher brought in some tropical seashells to show the class. Vermeij, who is blind, loved shells; he already had a small collection he’d picked up from the beaches of his native Holland. But those plain, fan-shaped cockles were rough huts compared with the exquisitely adorned cathedrals that he now held in his hands. He ran his fingers over a Florida helmet shell, savoring its complex roof of rounded knobs and regular rows of beaded ribs and its base as smooth as glass. He marveled at the perfect cone shape of a sea-snail shell and the sharp beads that spiraled from one end to the other. Vermeij wondered at the differences. Why were these tropical creations so polished and ornate and the Dutch cold-water shells so chalky and dull? It was his first scientific question, and he’s been investigating the puzzles of variability ever since. His answers have established him as one of the leading paleontologists in the United States.

As Vermeij, now 65 and a professor at the University of California, Davis, puts it, "I study the history of life." He does it by questing across disciplines and time, by studying living mollusks and their fossil counterparts, and by filtering oceans of information through his endlessly curious mind. "Great scientists are able to make connections between a number of fields. Gary is one of those guys," says Greg Dietl, the collections director at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York. "He’s a synthesizer," echoes Peter Roopnarine, a curator at the California Academy of Sciences. "And he’s generated a number of big ideas."

The big idea he’s best known for -- the one that most likely earned him a MacArthur grant in 1992 -- is his "arms race" theory of evolution. By meticulously examining the architecture of fossil shells and the scars that testify to long-ago battles, he showed that predators act as powerful agents of natural selection. As prehistoric crabs developed stronger jaws and claws, for instance, snails evolved shells that provided stronger defenses. Some paleontologists focus on grand physical events, such as climate change, to explain how life evolved; Vermeij emphasizes how mundane ecological interactions turn the wheels of adaptation.

If this sounds like academic arcana, it is anything but. The environmental crises we face today are nothing new, as experts like Vermeij recognize. Climate change, acidic seas, melting ice caps, invasive species, mass extinctions -- the world has seen it all before, and this history is embedded in the fossil record. Though it may be a chronicle of the world that existed before humans arrived, Vermeij believes it offers valuable insights for saving the one we are so rapidly destroying.

Vermeij is tall and spare, with thinning dark hair, a short beard, and a serious but warm manner. Born with a rare form of glaucoma, he suffered such poor vision and pain that doctors removed both of his eyes when he was 3 years old. He quickly adapted, learning to echolocate and to draw richly on his other senses. "My world was not black and hopeless," he recalled with a characteristic lack of self-pity in his 1997 autobiography, Privileged Hands. "It sparkled as it did before, but now with sounds, odors, shapes, and textures."

Vermeij’s parents, amateur naturalists, helped sustain that sparkle. They regularly took him and his older brother, Arie, for day trips in the countryside, supplying running commentary on the passing scenery, pressing pinecones or flowers into his hands, and drawing braille pictures of objects, like mountains or trees, that were too big to hold. They nurtured his early interest in science. His mother read him articles on mollusks from academic journals, which he began subscribing to as a teenager. His brother helped him develop a scientific vocabulary by reading aloud every biological word in the family’s massive dictionary while Geerat typed entries on his Perkins Brailler. (A similar heavy machine sits on his desk to this day.)

When Vermeij was 9, the family moved to New Jersey seeking better schooling for the blind, which they found seriously lacking in Holland. The sacrifice wasn’t lost on Vermeij, who pushed hard to excel. He felt an obligation to repay his parents’ faith in him and to show up the skeptics who doubted that a blind person could succeed as an academic scientist. New Jersey’s Commission for the Blind, for instance, initially refused to give him scholarship money to hire readers at Princeton, where he planned to study biology; even after he had earned his Ph.D. from Yale, officials at the University of Maryland insisted on hiring him on a trial basis before admitting him to the tenure track. Vermeij is quick to deal with slights when they occur but doesn’t dwell on them afterward. "Many blind people have a lot more trouble than I ever had. Maybe they’re less arrogant," he says, laughing. "Or a lot less self-assured."

Some of that self-assurance may come from his unwavering fascination with science. He’s followed his curiosity across a range of topics; he has published papers about plants, crabs, and other kinds of organisms. Still, nothing has captivated him the way mollusks have. He is endlessly awed by the diversity of forms that exists among the more than 100,000 living mollusk species. The fact that mollusks have survived for hundreds of millions of years, finding niches in almost every environment, also makes them an ideal subject for someone interested in understanding the history of life.

"They exemplify nearly every principle you can imagine in biology," he explains as we talk in his spacious but spartan campus office. Cardboard trays heaped casually with bleached white clamshells 19 million years old, gathered from a riverbank in Florida, sit atop one cabinet. More cabinets lining two walls hold a research-grade collection of thousands of shells from all over the globe. His delight is evident as he rummages through various drawers to find specimens he thinks are interesting. "Here’s a cute little sand-dwelling thing," he says, handing me a small brown shell with a ruffled edge. "This one is close to being one of the most beautiful things there are," he continues, pulling out  a two-inch specimen he identifies as a Euprotomus bulla from the coast of New Guinea. He found it, he says, in his typical way, just grubbing in the sand: "I keep my hands open, if you will, for whatever is there." Its coloring is unextraordinary -- pale tans and creams -- but its surface is a tactile feast of rounded knobs and grooves and a little flange that protrudes from the base. "Isn’t that wonderful how the apex is corniced and the inside is so smooth?" he asks.

The species evolved that particular architecture for self-defense, according to Vermeij’s theory: the thicker and knobbier the shell, the harder it is for a predator to grasp or break it, and the polished surface allows for smooth motion of the animal’s foot, which aids a fast getaway. It took someone seeing with his hands rather than his eyes to appreciate fully the significance of those features, says Jerry Harasewych, a curator of mollusks at the Smithsonian Institution.

Watching Vermeij handle a shell is like watching a dog turn his nose to the wind -- you know he’s absorbing a wealth of data that you are somehow missing. He spider-walks his fingers around it, taking in its geometry. He scratches a fingernail across the surface to feel for slight variations that indicate a barely visible ridge or break. He has identified new species based on minute variations in the shapes and contours of their shells and clearly enjoys taxonomic nit-picking. "I value that kind of detail, because it’s the details, ultimately, on which everything else is based," he says.

Colleagues all have stories about his sensory giftedness. "I was showing him some shells from the Caribbean and telling him what I thought they were," recalls David Lindberg, a paleobiologist and curator at the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Vermeij questioned the identification, pointing out the presence of some small, fine ribs. "I hadn’t seen them, looking under the microscope," Lindberg says. "He’d 'seen' them by touch."

One of Vermeij’s first research assistants, Jim Porter, remembers walking with him through a rainforest in Panama years ago. Vermeij decided to stop to take in the scenery. By the time Porter returned an hour later, Vermeij had identified all the bird territories within earshot. And then he asked, "What kind of flower is overhead?" Porter peered upward but couldn’t see any flowers until Vermeij pointed out that there was a cluster of bees swarming above them. Looking more closely Porter saw -- 100 feet above -- the bloom of a canopy flower.

Such close observation makes even a casual hike with Vermeij a slow-going affair. On a recent rainy day, I joined him and his wife, Edith, for a walk through a redwood grove north of San Francisco. Edith, a biologist, held his hand to guide him along the path and draw him to items of interest. "That’s my job," she explained. "And to find snails -- that’s my real job."

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