A Beginner's Introduction to Molluscs
By Sammy Snail

Hello, my name is Sammy Snail and I am a mollusc.

The name "mollusc" is derived from the Latin word "mollis" which means soft. (Latin is the language scientists use to talk about things in nature.) My body is soft. I do not have a backbone, or any other bones for that matter. My skeleton is in fact my shell - and some of my cousins don't even have a shell! Scientists classify me as an invertebrate, which is just a big name for a group of animals without backbones.

Scientists who study molluscs are called conchologists or malacologists. Scientists group all plants and animals into specific categories according to their common body features. These features may include such things as where they live, what they eat and how their bodies are made and work. Conchologists grouped us molluscs together because of the following common features we share.

1. Like me, most of my relatives have a shell. This is a hard home that we build to house and protect our soft bodies. Not all of us have a shell though.

2. We all have a fleshy mantle. This is a flesh-like lobe or pair of lobes that produce our shell

3. We have a radula. This is our teeth. Our radula resembles a fingernail file or the chain on a chain saw. We rasp our food with this rough ribbon of teeth just like a cat licks up his food with his rough tongue. Our radula is located in our mouth just like your teeth are in your mouth.& (Billy Bivalve and his relatives the bivalves don t have this radula. Billy will tell you about his family a little later.)

4. We all have a muscular foot. We use our foot to move around on or some use it to dig into the sand or mud where they live. Some of our relatives use this foot to cling onto hard rocky surfaces. They can hang on so tightly, that you cannot pull them off. In some of our other relatives, like the squid and octopus, their foot has evolved (changed over thousands of years) to become many arms or tentacles.

5. We all have to keep our soft bodies moist to stay alive

My mollusc relatives have learned to survive in almost all the areas of the world. The aquatic molluscs live in water. They live in the salty oceans from the intertidal areas (that area where waves and tides wash in and out) to the deepest parts, called trenches. Many live in fresh water areas such as lakes and streams. The terrestrial molluscs live on land. This is where my closest relatives and I live. (Maybe you have seen one of my cousins in your own back yard.) Some, like me, live under rotting leaves or logs. Others live high up in the trees. Some live on mountains, others in deserts. So you see, we have adapted rather well to living here on earth.

Some of my mollusc relatives have even evolved to become molluscs without a shell. They too, live in the oceans and on land. You may know some of these shells land cousins of mine as the slugs and the ones living in the oceans as sea butterflies or sea slugs (they are very beautiful: for many pictures of these lovely creatures, see the Flat Worms of the World site - the best photos start about 1/3 down the page.)

Scientists have taken our large group (known as a Phylum), the molluscs, and have divided us into seven classes. Molluscs within each Class have body features that are similar to each other. This class is then further divided into families once again according to their similarities.

I will now have some of my cousins introduce themselves to you and have them tell you a bit about their class and who some of their family members are.

I am happy to introduce you to:


I hope you enjoy their talks


(by Andrew Aplacophora)

Hello my name is Andrew, and I m here to tell you about my Class, the Aplacophoras.

I am very small, only about 1 millimeter to 30 millimeters (about 1 inch) long, mollusc and I am considered by the scientists who study me to be a and very ancient mollusc in body structure. Some of these scientists actually divide my class into two very small subclasses, that of the Caudofoveata and that of the Solenogastres.

I live way down in the oceans deepest waters and lay buried in the muddy sediments found there. I do not have a shell and many people think that I look more like an earthworm than I do my other mollusc cousins.

Because of where I live (man is really just beginning to study the world s deep ocean trenches), scientists have not had much of a chance to study my relatives or me. Not a whole lot of information is known about us or how we live. Maybe someday you could become a scientist and be the one to find out all about us and tell the world how we live. Why, you might even discover one of my unknown family members and name him after yourself. That would be so cool




By Paul Polyplacophora

Hello, my name is Paul and I m here to tell you about my Class, the Polyplacophora.

In the Latin language, poly means many. I have a shell made out of eight separate, but overlapping, plates or valves. You may also know me by my common name, the Chitons.

I only live in the ocean and am generally found clinging tightly onto the rocks in the intertidal zone (the area in the ocean where waves wash in and out and where water from the tidal changes wash in and out of). A few of my Class do live in very deep (more than 5,000 meters) ocean places. The members of my Class range in size from 2 millimeters to 40 centimeters (1/16 inch to 16 inches), and there are about 800 living Species represented in my Class.

By having several valves that can be moved separately, we are able to change the shape of our bodies to fit onto the uneven hard rocky places we like to live on. Our broad, fleshy foot holds us to the rocks so tightly that neither the violent ocean waves nor an enemy can dislodge us easily. You would have to take a sharp object, like a knife, to pry us off our rock and if you did succeed in getting me off, I would curl up into a ball. My hard plates would be on the outside of this ball and my soft vulnerable body parts protected on the inside of the ball.

Most of the members in my class are herbivores (we eat plants). In our mouths is a special mechanism known as a radula. This radula is like a ribbon of tiny hard teeth (think of something very rough like a piece of sandpaper or a fingernail file). By licking the rock with this radula, we rasp off pieces of plant material or algae growing there. We then swallow and digest these food particles.

We breathe in oxygen from the water through six to eighty-eight pairs of gills.

Both the male and females of my class generally release their eggs and sperm directly into the water. When they meet, a new baby polyplacophora is born. However some of the females in my class do keep their eggs inside their body (in the mantle cavity). When they draw in water to breathe, they also draw in the sperm and thus fertilize their eggs. They then give live birth to their young, all ready to fend for themselves in the sea!

Here are some interesting things about Polyplacophoras:
  • Most polyplacophora are nocturnal, that is, they move around and eat mostly at night.
  • A polyplacophora may spend its entire life in the very small area of a few feet.
  • Polyplacophora often show a "homing behavior". If they get knocked off their rock, they can usually find their way back.



By Mary Monoplacophora


Hello, my name is Mary and I m here to tell you about my Class, the Monoplacophora.

 Prior to the year 1952, scientists thought I was extinct (no longer living). Then while on the Danish "Galathea" expedition, scientists discovered ten living specimens of Neopilina (the fancy Latin name of one of my relatives). A few years later a second living specimen of Neopilina was discovered. Today, there are about a dozen known living representatives in my class. The rest of the monoplacophora members are only known by their fossil records.

The reason that I am so rarely found is that I live in very deep water, well below 200 to 600 meter (1/3 mile) depth level and that there appear to be only a very few of us living today.

My shell is only about 1.0 to 3.5 centimeters long and is shaped like a cap. It is often very thin and fragile. I crawl around the ocean bottom by means of a large, round, flat foot. Inside my body, my organs are in pairs almost like those of the earthworm; however, I am not segmented like he is. I have several paired gills (one per section) through which I breathe and one heart and kidney per body section.

The females of my Class release their eggs directly into the surrounding water in great clouds. The males also release their sperm into the same water. If these eggs and sperm meet by chance, new baby monoplacophora are born.



By Seymour Scaphopoda

Hello, my name is Seymour Scaphopoda and I'm here to tell you about my Class, the Scaphoda.

We are often known and called by our more common name, the "Tusk Shells".

I, as do all the members of my Class, live in the marine environment (salt-water habitat) only. We all live in a shell house that we build to protect our very soft body. There are about 350 different species in our Class living in shallow to relatively deep (2,000 meters) water. We range in size from 2 millimeters to about 15 centimeters (1/16th of an inch to 6 inches).

Some of our shells look like an elephant s tusk, while others look like a swollen cucumber. Whichever shape we take, our shells are open a both ends making us look like a fat drinking straw that has swallowed a big lunch. This tube-like shell usually has several heavy ribs running the length of it and it is most often coloured white and brown or white and green.

We tusk shells have a spade-shaped (like a shovel) foot that we use to dig ourselves into the soft muddy or sandy ocean bottom. Here we stay all our lives.

We draw water in through the small tip of our shell that sticks out of the sand or mud where we live.  This water flows into our mantle cavity (remember, the mantle is the organ that builds our shells) where oxygen is just absorbed directly into our blood. We do not have gills for breathing, nor do we have a heart or blood vessels to carry and pump our blood. We are what scientists call "a very primitive and simple organism".

My cousins and I always live head down in the sand or mud. We have many skinny thread-like tentacles that have a tiny sticky pad at their tip. These captacula project from our heads and wiggle through the surrounding mud or sand in search of food. These fine threads, called captacula, latch onto very small food items (called detritus) found in the sand or mud and then they pull them in to our mouth. From there, the food is rasped by the radula (which looks and acts much like a fingernail file) into finer particles and is then digested.

Both the females and males of my Class release their eggs and sperm directly into the surrounding water. If, by chance, the eggs and sperm get together, fertilization occurs and a baby scaphoda is born.

Some interesting Scaphopoda facts;
  • Scaphoda live all their lives head down or in other words, upside down!
  • Scaphopoda shells (many of them from Vancouver Is, British Columbia) were the shells used to make the North American Indian trade money "Wampum"



By Gerry Gastropoda


My three subclasses are as follows:
1.   The Prosobranchia:
This is the biggest of the subclasses and contains most of the mollusc seashells that people recognize and pick up along our beaches. Most of the members here are marine inhabitants, or in other words, they live only in salt water. However, many of the members can also live in freshwater or even on land (terrestrial). Every member of this big subclass has a coiled shell. Their soft bodies have a head complete with two eyes located on the tops of two tentacles. These cousins of mine all breath by means of gills. They have a big flat foot, which they use for locomotion and on the back end of this foot is a structure called an operculum, which acts as a trap door. When a prosobranch is threatened by an enemy or he is afraid of getting dried-out (all molluscs must keep moist to stay alive), they pull all their soft, moist body into their shell then they close the operculum behind them just as you close the door to your house.

Most of the seashells you people collect along beaches or lakes are from the members of this subclass. Some of the families in this subclass are known by names such: conchs (Strombidae), whelks (Buccinidae), limpets (Lotiidae), periwinkles (Littorinidae), cones (Conidae), volutes (Volutidae), and cowries (Cypraeidae).

2.The Opisthobranchia:
All of the members of this subclass are marine inhabitants. Most members in this sub-class only have a very small, fragile shell and it is often contained right inside their soft bodies or they may not have a shell at all. Most of these cousins of mine breathe through their gills; however, some absorb oxygen from the water directly through a specialized membrane (something like the thin skin lining the insides of your cheeks) lining their mantle cavity.

Many of these molluscs have very colorful bodies. We know some of the Opisthobranches as: sea hares, sea  butterflies (Thecostoma), sea slugs (saccoglossans and nudibranchs), and canoe (Scaphandridae) and bubble shells (several families).

3. The Pulmonates:
These are my woodland and garden dwelling snail and slug cousins. Most of these molluscs live on land or in freshwater lakes and streams; however a few are marine dwellers. They all breathe by means of pulmonary sacs not gills.

Some have coiled shells, but many do not have a shell at all. One very interesting fact about most pulmonates is, the members of this subclass are both male and female (hermaphrodites) at the same time.

This comes in very handy as these snails are very slow moving and don't like moving around too much. If they had to go looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend, it could take them a very, very long time to have babies. Being both male and female solves this problem. When they come across another snail of their kind, they just exchange sperm packets with each other and then they both go off and lay eggs. Baby molluscs hatch out some time later and they too are born as both boy and girl within the same slug or snail body.

Here are some very interesting gastropod facts:
  • When we hold a large seashell up to our ear, we can hear the sound of the seashore waves because the shell echoes and jumbles all the sounds around us!
  • All cone shells possess a poisonous dart (a modified radula) with which they harpoon, inject venom and thus kill their prey. Some cone shell possess venom is so toxic that if stung, it can severely harm or even be fatal to man.
  • Many land snails can lift ten times their own weight up a vertical surface (like a wall).
  • Many members of the Carrier shell family collect seashells. These shells scientists call Xenophoridae attach other shells or stones to their own shell for protection and camouflage. Sometimes they even use man-made objects such as glass and bottle caps!
  • The largest snail (univalve) known attained a length of 78 cm (two and one half feet) with a girth of nearly forty inches. This trumpet conch, Syrinx aruanus (Linneus, 1758), weighed in at nearly forty pounds.
  • The largest land snail known is the Giant African Land Snail. It can weigh up to 2 pounds (900g) and attain a length of 15.5 inches (39cm) from head to tail.
  • The smallest known snail shell is the Ammonicera rota and measures only 0.02 inches in diameter.  Fifty of them laid end to end would measure one inch!
  • Some snails live in the very tops of trees, while others live high up in the mountains or even in deserts.  Some may be living in your own back yard wherever you live.
  • Pelagic gastropods live their entire life without ever touching bottom or shore! They float and travel on the ocean s currents. The violet snail, the Janthina, can travel hundreds of miles in their lifetime as they float around on the ocean s currents. These delicate shells only touch land when get washed up onto beaches during storms. An unsuspecting person when picking up these shells and animal, which look like a piece of purple bubble gum, will get dyed a pretty purple colour. This is a dye the animal uses for protection against its enemies.
  • The common garden snail, Helix aspersa Linneus, can travel about two feet (600mm) in three minutes. At that rate, it would travel 1500m (one mile) in five and one half days - a true snail's pace 



Bivalves (Pelycypoda)
By Billy Bivalve

Hello, my name is Billy and I'm here to tell you about my Class, the bivalves.

I am called a bivalve because in the Latin language (the language scientists and doctors use) any word that starts with the letters Bi means two. Everyone in my Class has a two-part shell that is hinged together. These two shell parts are called valves. I open and close these valves by using my strong adductor muscles and ligaments just like you bend your elbow or knee.

I don t have a mouth like you do; I have a siphon (like a short, fat drinking straw that feels like rubber) which I use to pull in water and tiny animals that live in the water, as well as "detritus" (i.e., little particles of organic matter from a variety of sources) . When this water enters my body, my gills take the oxygen out of the water and release my used up air back into the water. My gills also filter out the tiny food particles from the water and pass them on to my stomach where they are digested.

I really don't have much of a head but I and a few of my cousins have many eyes; (see my picture at the beginning of the article) however, most of my cousins do not have any eyes at all. They don t need them because they live firmly attached to solid objects or live deeply buried beneath the sand or muddy bottoms of oceans, lakes or rivers and they don t have to see anything.

Covering my soft body is a thin membrane called the mantle (like a thick piece of skin). The mantle takes lime and calcium out of the water and turns it into my two-piece shell. Some of my cousins have very, very tiny shells - as tiny as half a millimeter (there are 24mm in an inch)!!, while my biggest cousins have shells well over one meter (thirty nine inches) across and may weigh over three hundred and thirty kilograms (seven hundred pounds). Some of us have shells so thin and fragile that just picking them up will crush them while some others are so hard that you could jump up and down on them and they wouldn t break. Some are shiny smooth, while some are just like fingernail files or sandpaper. Some have sharp spines all over them to protect themselves so that fish and other animals won t eat them (example: Spondylidae - the "spiny oysters"). Our shells come in every colour of the rainbow and some of our shells are so pearly on the inside that people often use them to make fancy buttons for their cloths.

Our mantle can do one other thing that is very important to people. If a foreign object such as a piece of sand gets into our soft mantle, it HURTS, so we take the same smooth shelly material that we put on the inside of our shell and cover the offending object up and guess what! We ve just made a pearl. The longer we live, the bigger the pearl gets. If the pearl comes from one of my cousins who have the pearly insides on their shell, these pearls become very valuable; however, most of us just produce a pearl that is not very pretty or useful to man.

Most of our families reproduce by laying millions of eggs into the water surrounding us. The male bivalves then release their sperm into the same water. If the eggs and sperm meet, a new baby bivalve is born. Some of my female cousins hold their eggs in a space called the mantle cavity in their body. The males still spurt their sperm into the water and when she pulls this water in through her siphon, the eggs are fertilized. These are then brooded inside her body until she knows they are big enough to live in the water. She then releases them into the water. All baby bivalves start life as tiny specks, (larval stage of growth) swimming in the water. When these larva become big enough, they start to settle onto their new homes.  When they are still young, yet settled, they are called "spat".

My cousins choose many different kinds of homes to live in or on. Some like to live attached to hard objects such as rocks or man-made objects. Some live all their lives buried beneath the sandy or muddy ocean, lake or stream bottoms. Some actually live inside wood. These cousins of mine used to cause man a lot of trouble when he used to sail in wooden ships. HE ATE HOLES IN THE SHIP and it often SANK. Some of my other cousins are parasites, meaning that they live inside a living host, such as a fish, and survive by eating part of the host.


Here are some interesting bivalve facts for all you trivia fans:
  • Some oysters may shed over one million eggs in a season. Only about one of these lives to adulthood.
  • -Some oysters alternate their gender. Male one year, female the next!
  • Some scallops (Pectens, or Pectinidae) have dozens of eyes. They help the scallop to see predators, so it will know whether to swim away or clam-up!
  • The ocean quahog (Arctica islandica Linne,1758), can live to be 220 years old.
  • Boring clams (Family  Xylophagidae - "wood eater" in Latin) can sink a ship!  They are often called "ship worms", even though they aren't worms at all!
  • Most molluscs are capable of making pearls when foreign substances enter their shell. They coat the foreign substance with shelly material. Some clams can grow pearls as big as golf balls.  The pearl industry is worth many Billions of dollars each year.  Fresh-water clams (family Unionidae) are often used as nuclei, around which pearls can grow - small, round pieces of the clam's shell are placed inside a Pearl Oyster (Pinctada margaratifera Linne, 1758), and they are coated with iridescent nacre and form a pearl.
  • The largest known bivalve harvested was a Tridacna gigas (Linne, 1758), which weighed 330kg (734 pounds), and was 1.4m (nearly four feet) in length!
  • Some molluscs, such as the oysters, change sex. They start off life as a male and they usually end up life as females.
For a picture of a scallop shell you can print out and colour, click HERE



By Charles Cephalopod

         Hello my name is Charles Cephalopod, but, you may call me Charlie. I'm here to tell you about my distinguished Class of molluscs.

We are the smartest, (of all the invertebrates) fastest and the most handsome (in my opinion) of all the molluscs. We are a most ancient order and are well represented in fossil records (Ammonites are our most famous ancestors). We live only marine (salt-water) environments and there are around 700 species of cephalopods living today. Some members of my Class are the octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus.

All my cousins and I have large heads and very complex brains. We also have two eyes and use them to see almost as you humans do (Our optical nerve is of particular interest, being amazingly large. It has been used to study how optical nerves work). We can think through fairly complex puzzles (like where you hid some food in a maze) and remember how to solve them faster the next time.

Only the nautilus has a shell and I will show you a picture of this (link). The argonaut has a shellac-like structure but this not a true shell.  It is but a brood case (sort of cradle) to hold the eggs until the young hatch. This case is not attached to the animal and is held in place with one pair of her tentacles.  After the Agonauta (the argonaut genus) mother is through with this egg case, it is left to float on the ocean, and is often picked up by men, who call it a "paper nautilus". Click HERE to view a picture of an Argonaut Egg Case

We have cells in our skin, called chromataphores, which enable us to rapidly change our skin color and pattern whenever we want to. Example: if we get mad, we go a blotchy red color; if afraid we go a very pale almost white color. We can change our skin color and pattern to match our surroundings as well; this is called being able to camouflage ourselves.

If an enemy threatens us, we squirt out a cloud of purple-black ink, which confuses them and we jet away. This ink is also toxic or poisonous to our enemies such as sharks.

We all have arms modified with sucker discs with which we capture, hold and pull our food to our hard parrot-like-beak of a mouth. Octopus have eight of these tentacles. Squid have ten (called decapods) tentacles. The cuttlefish and nautilus have many. If we ever lose one of these tentacles in a fight or due to an injury, we just grow a new one!  The tips of these tentacles are so sensitive that we can tell the difference in size, shape and texture of objects.

I and all my cousins breath through gills, and have three hearts. We are all carnivorous predators (we catch live food) eating such things as other molluscs, fish and other marine invertebrates. We crush our food in our hard bill then rasp off bits with the radula (like a fingernail file) located in our mouths.

Most cephalopods have separate sexes and fertilization is internal. The males produce a "sperm packet" which he places inside the female's body using one of his tentacles. Sometime later, the female then lays eggs. Many cephalopods are good mothers and stay with their eggs until they hatch. They keep clean, fresh water flowing over the eggs and caress them to keep them clean of derbies. The young hatch out as perfect small copies of their parents.

Here are some interesting Cephalopod facts:
  • Cephalopods first appeared about 500 million years ago.
  • Some cephalopod cans swim faster than fish.
  • The giant squid living deep in our oceans do battle with largest whales and may eat large sharks. These giants can reach a striking 1,600 kilograms (nearly a ton!) and be 18 meters (60 feet) long - but many suspect the biggest ones haven't been found yet!!!  Sperm whales battle and eat these monsters of the deep at depths up to a km (over half a mile) below the surface - but there is evidence that sometimes the Giant Squid win the battle...
  • Octopus can squeeze their bodies through remarkably small openings. A large octopus could easily crawl through a pop can that had been opened at both ends.

The internal structure (long oval chalky "bone") of the cuttlefish is used in birdcages as a dietary supplement and for keeping their beaks in good condition.

For a picture of a chambered nautilus shell you can print out and colour, click HERE


This is a new counter system set up by Globel on
December 01, 2002