Beautifully illustrated with photographs of mollusc shells held by the Natural History Museum in London, this appealing book educates and inspires simply by showing and telling us about the animals that created these stunning works of art
Who ever though that a person could learn so much about natural history and evolution, about human culture and human nature by learning about mollusc shells?
Molluscs are a huge and diverse group of squishy creatures that range from tiny snails that are less than 2 millimeters (0.008 inch) in size to the giant squid that can reach more than 13 meters (43 feet) in length. They are spineless beings that evolved an elegant solution to a big problem: how to protect their soft bodies? To do this, they evolved a thin layer of tissue that covers their bodies and secrete a distinctive shell — their exoskeleton — made of calcium carbonate and a tough protein, conchiolin.
People throughout the ages have been fascinated by seashells’ endless diversity and elegant shapes, and by their bright colors. In the past, shells were commonly used as currency, ornaments, tools and as spiritual objects. Even today, shells are still widely used to make buttons, inlays, a variety of jewelery and other decorative items as well as construction materials, for purifying water, as a fertilizer and for meeting the nutritional needs of domesticated poultry.
You are invited to learn more about shells in this fabulous new book, Fascinating Shells: An Introduction to 121 of the World’s Most Wonderful Mollusks, by Andreia Salvador (University of Chicago Press; 2022: Amazon US / Amazon UK). Ms Salvador is a senior curator of marine mollusca at the Natural History Museum of London, which houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of mollusc shells, currently numbering over 8 million specimens.
Most of the photographs are by Kevin Webb, who works in the Photography Unit at the museum. The book’s format is designed to highlight the shells themselves: when you open the book, you will find that every pair of open pages includes a stunning portrait of a shell on one page, and an interesting and educational vignette briefly detailing that shell’s biological, historical and geographic information on the page next to it. We also learn about the conservation status of various mollusc species (some extinct species are included), their vulnerability to ocean acidification and to climate change.
In this book, we feast our eyes upon beautifully structured and colored shells as we learn about these animals’ natural history. We learn about polymorphisms from seeing some of the many different colors and patterns seen in the freshwater snail known as the zigzag nerite, Vittina waigiensis, a species that is popular in the aquarium trade. If you love the color purple, the pelagic violet sea snail, Janthina janthina, is a particularly lovely example of countershading where one side of the animal is dark whilst the other side is light. This purple snail’s countershading is a camouflage that prevents its predators from seeing it from above or below as it floats at the ocean’s surface suspended by a life raft it builds from bubbles.
But not all snails have colored shells. The miraculous diplomat snail, Plectostoma mirable, is a land snail from the tropical island of Borneo whose elegant spiky shell is translucent and mostly colorless.
One of my favorite shells, the precious wentletrap, Epitonium scalare, was also everyone else’s favorite: it was highly sought after and very expensive throughout the 17th & 18th centuries because the elegant open whorls of its shell are held together by coiling varices, resembling a spiral staircase. (“Wentletrap” is from the Dutch, and it translates as “spiral staircase”.)
It may surprise you to learn that not all snails live in or near water. For example, the amazingly resilient desert snail, Eremina desertorum, can survive extreme heat or severe dryness for years in a state of suspended animation known as aestivation. This fact was driven home when a specimen collected in Egypt and held by the British Museum, was glued to a wooden tablet for a display in March 1846. Thought to be dead, this snail surprised everyone when it was found to be alive in March 1850. It was revived and went on to live an additional two years before finding its way back into the museum’s collections.
Out of the hundreds of thousands of seashells available in the museum’s collections, how did Ms Salvador choose the 121 shells that she included in this book?
“I selected shells that I associate with my family, my country, my friends, or my colleagues”, Ms Salvador said in a recent interview.
Of all the amazing shells in this book, which is Ms Salvador’s favorite?
“[M]y favorite shell is the carrier shell, genus Xenophora”, Ms Salvador said. “This marine snail collects and attaches objects to the edge of its shell, resulting in a mini collection that they carry with them all the time.”
Apparently, because making defensive stabby spines on a shell is so physiologically expensive, carrier snails (the genus name, Xenophoridae, is Latin for “foreign carrying”) have evolved an ingenious way to deal with that by looting seashells, corals, sponges, stones and other debris that it comes across on the seafloor and cementing them to the outside of its own shell at regular intervals. These pilfered materials serve to camouflage the snail under a portable pile of debris and to keep it from sinking into the fine sediment on the ocean floor, without the energetic cost of producing its own spines.
This book is a joy to hold and to behold. Crammed with hundreds of high-quality photographs and accompanied by a retelling of some of the strange behind-the-scenes stories that accompany these seashells, this book will captivate and delight readers young and old.
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