“Why are snails so well prepared for the coronavirus? It’s because they already work from home!”

There are a lot of brands out there trying to find out what makes TikTok — the super popular video-sharing social media platform — tick. Apparently, one thing that works is snail jokes.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) has racked up nearly 150,000 followers, 8 million views and two million likes — anchored by the weekly jokes of mollusk curator Tim Pearce.

Now, the museum is partnering with TikTok to use its experts in many scientific fields to help spur learning through the short-form video platform. It’s part of a $50 million Creative Learning Fund investment by TikTok to include more educational content on the platform.

They’re not disclosing how much CMNH is getting, but they are the only museum in the partnership. Many of the museum’s scientific specimens and experts — as well as Pearce’s jokes — are already featured here.

As for Pearce, he’s not taking his “shell-ebrity” seriously.

“Well mostly I’ve been ignoring it,” says Pearce. “I’m not much of a consumer of social media. Actually, I’m not at all a consumer of social media. I’m aware that this phenomenon is happening. I prefer to spend my time doing research.”

Pearce’s penchant for snail-related humor got out, though.

“I’ve been working on a book, ‘1,001 Snail Jokes,’ says Pearce. “I’m up to about 250. And most of them are not very good.”

One of his most popular jokes goes like this: “Barack Obama went to a costume party, and he was giving his wife a piggyback ride. The host of the party said, ‘Welcome Mr. President! What are you dressed up as?’ Obama replied, ‘I’m a snail! That’s Michelle on my back.’”

Sloan MacRae, director of marketing for the museum, started Pearce out on Instagram telling jokes for #MolluskMondays. They tried other platforms, and then TikTok took off.

“Well, I have a feeling that some of it is my personality,” says Pearce. “I’m so enthusiastic about mollusks! And that’s sort of contagious.”

“One of my agendas is to spread the word about how amazing mollusks are. First of all, most people don’t even know what a mollusk is — by the way, they include snails and clams and octopus and squids and some other things too. Secondly, they don’t appreciate how many mollusks there are in the world. And they don’t know how many incredibly interesting stories there are to tell about mollusks.”

Pearce has loved mollusks since he was a child, carrying a collection of snails around in a cottage cheese carton at age three.

“Another big reason I like mollusks is that I like collecting things, but I don’t like killing things,” says Pearce. “A butterfly collection would be really beautiful, but you have to kill the butterflies to get the wings off. I didn’t want to do that. So, if you find an empty snail shell at the beach, or even in the woods, you can pick it up and take it home and don’t have to kill anything.”

Tim Pearce, curator of mollusks at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo by Josh Franzos.

If there’s a not-so-secret agenda here, it’s to show off the Carnegie Museum’s collections and knowledge.

“The goal for these TikTok jokes is that I love to make people laugh, but I also hope to be educational,” says Pearce. “I often try to slip a little fun fact or something about mollusks in the joke. At the very minimum, making people aware that there are mollusks out there, and we do share the planet with them.”

The Museum’s mollusk collection is vast with around 1.4 million specimens, mostly snails but a lot of clams as well, says Pearce.

“Most of the public doesn’t realize that the museum has collections. We’ve got over 20 million specimens. People are doing science at the museum,” he adds.

That includes doing original research. Pearce is currently working on a project to determine the reasons for the decline of the tiger snail, which is “about the size of a nickel and has some dark stripes on it.”

“I get to ask questions and find out the answers,” says Pearce.

CMNH’s Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Matt Lamanna is also starting to gain a following on TikTok.

“Matt Lamanna studies dinosaurs — you can’t lose with dinosaurs,” says Pearce. “By the way, there were dinosaurs that ate snails! Not on purpose.”

It all comes back to snails. “I kept on wondering, why can’t we make mollusks as exciting as sports?” Pearce asks. “I think maybe it’s starting to happen!”

He ends with a joke, of course.“Why they don’t they serve escargot at the burger joint? The burger joint only sells fast food.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.