Introduction to Collecting Shells

by Lynn Scheu

Even though they are one of the most diverse of all animal phyla, the Mollusca are usually characterized in the mind of man simply as "seashells." As colorful, varied and pleasing to the eye as seashells are, there are also land shells and freshwater shells, and even snails without shells, to equal them in color and loveliness. And no matter how wonderful any of these shells are or what element they inhabit, the soft-bodied animals which construct them are a part of that beauty and are the cause behind it. For every shape, size and color, there is a living creature with a life history.

Conchologists, those people who study and collect shells, almost always study their animal makers as well -- their anatomy, their life history and their habitats. Collecting and studying shells and their makers, the mollusks, is one of the oldest natural history pursuits of man, dating back to the Romans and before -- indeed, a shell collection was preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. Aristotle, and then Pliny the Elder were among the first naturalists to write about shells and their peculiar anatomies; in fact it was Aristotle who coined the name "Mollusca," meaning "soft-bodied."

It was no doubt their versatility which made mollusks such desirable objects for collection. [See what Pliny the Elder had say to about shells and their variety back in A.D. 77] It has been said that shell collecting is the second most popular collecting hobby, after postage stamps. Whatever the truth of that, the timeless appeal of shells probably owes as much to the infinite variety of molluscan shape, color and pattern as it does to their actual beauty. And man's age-old fascination for the mysteries of the sea and all of its creatures is probably responsible for an equal measure of that popularity.

As time permits, this section will be enhanced with further information on collecting shells. If you have questions that just aren't answered in the articles included here, why not post your questions to the Conch-L discussion group? There you'll meet many conchologists who are willing to help.