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A vendor in Tanzania with a variety of shells for sale

Conchology (from Ancient Greek: κόγχος - conchos "cockle") is the scientific or amateur study of mollusc shells. Conchology can be viewed as one aspect of malacology, the study of molluscs. Malacology studies molluscs as whole organisms, not just their shells. Conchology pre-dated malacology as a field of study. Conchology includes the study of land and freshwater mollusc shells as well as seashells. In addition to a shell, some gastropods have an operculum which is also studied.

Conchology is now sometimes seen as an archaic study; relying on only one aspect of an organism's morphology can be misleading. However, the shell can give at least some insight into mollusc taxonomy. Historically, the shell was often the only part of the animal available for study. Even in current museum collections it is common for the dry material in the collection to greatly exceed the preserved alcohol material.

Cephalopods only have small internal shells, with the exception of the Nautiloidea. Some groups, such as the nudibranchs, have lost their shells altogether while in others it has been replaced by a protein support structure. Because of this conchologists mainly deal with four molluscan orders: the gastropods (snails), bivalves (clams), Polyplacophora (chitons) and Scaphopoda (tusk shells).

Contents

Shell collecting versus conchology

The terms shell collector and conchologist can be regarded as two distinct categories. Not all shell collectors are conchologists; some are primarily concerned with the aesthetic value of shells instead of their scientific study. It is also true that not all conchologists are shell collectors; this type of research only requires access to private or institutional shell collections. There is some debate in the conchological community, with some people regarding all shell collectors (regardless of motivation) as conchologists.

History of conchology

Molluscs have probably been used by primates as a food source long before humans evolved. Shell collecting, the precursor of conchology, probably goes back as long as there have been people and beaches.

Stone Age seashell necklaces have been found, sometimes in areas far from the ocean indicating that they were traded. Shell jewellery is found at almost all archaeological sites, including at ancient Aztec ruins, digs in ancient China, and the Indus Valley.

During the Renaissance people began taking interest in natural objects of beauty to put in cabinets of curiosities. Because of their attractiveness, variety, durability and ubiquity, shells became a large part of these collections. Towards the end of the 17th century, people began looking at shells with scientific interest. Martin Lister in 1685-1692 published Historia Conchyliorum, which was the first comprehensive conchological text, having over 1000 engraved plates.

A plate from Lister’s book, showing what he calls buccinis shells

George Rumpf, or Rumphius, (1627-1702) published the first mollusc taxonomy. He suggested "single shelled ones" (Polyplacophora: limpets, and abalone), "snails or whelks" (Gastropoda), and "two-shelled ones" (Bivalves). Many of his terms were adopted by Carolus Linnaeus. He continued to do important scientific work after going blind, working by feel.

The study of zoology, including conchology, was revolutionized by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus and his system of binomial nomenclature. 683 of the 4000 or so animal species he described are now considered molluscs although Linnaeus placed them in several phyla at the time.[1]

There have been many prominent conchologists in the past two centuries. The Sowerby family were famous collectors, dealers, and illustrators. John Mawe (1764 – 1829) produced arguably the first conchology guidebook, The Voyager's Companion or Shell-Collector's Pilot as well as The Linnæan System of Conchology. Hugh Cuming (1791-1865) is famous for his huge collection and numerous discoveries of new species. Thomas Say wrote the fundamental work American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America, Illustrated From Coloured Figures From Original Drawings, Executed from Nature in six volumes (1830-1834).

R. Tucker Abbott was the most prominent conchologist of the 20th century. He authored dozens of conchology books and was museum director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, bringing the world of conchology to the public. His most prominent works are American Seashells, Seashells of the World, and The Kingdom of the Seashell. See Category:Conchologists for others. Many of the finest collections of seashells are private. John DuPont, and Jack Lightbourne are known for extensive collections. John DuPont donated his shell collection to the Delaware Museum of Natural History in 1984. Emperor Hirohito of Japan also amassed a huge collection, and was a competent and respected amateur conchologist.

Museums

Many museums worldwide contain very large and scientifically-important mollusc collections. However in most cases these are research collections, behind the scenes of the museum, and thus not readily accessible to the general public in the same way that exhibits are.

The largest assemblage of mollusc shells is housed at the Smithsonian Institution which has millions of lots representing perhaps 50,000 species, versus about 35,000 species for the largest private collections.

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In the USA

In Europe

Organizations

Like other scientific fields, conchologists have a number of local, national, and international organizations. There are also many organizations specializing in specific subareas.

Fake shells

Shell collectors who purchase shells from dealers may sometimes encounter shells which have been altered to represent new species or rare color varieties.[3] It is claimed that in previous centuries, fake examples of Epitonium scalare were created out of rice paste.[4]

Depictions of shells on stamps and coins

Shells have been featured on over 5,000 postage stamps worldwide.

Shells have also been featured on many coins, including the Bahamian dollar (1974), the Cuban peso (1981), the Haitian gourde (1973), the Nepalese rupee (1989) and Philippine peso (1993).

References

  1. ^ See Harry G. Lee's excellent article at the Jacksonville Shell Club which contains many well researched conchological articles: [1]
  2. ^ McGhie, H. A. (17 December 2008). "Catalogue of type specimens of molluscs in the collection of The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester, UK" (in English). ZooKeys 4: 1–46. doi:10.3897/zookeys.4.32. http://pensoftonline.net/zookeys/index.php/journal/article/view/32.  
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ Abbott, R. Tucker. Seashells of the world a guide to the better-known species. New York: Golden P, 1985.

External links

Conchological Organizations


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