Conchology, a branch of malacology, is the study of mollusk shells including seashells, freshwater and land mollusk shells, and gastropod operculums. Conchologists, those who practice conchology, study the shells four main groups of mollusks including bivalves and gastropods as wells as chitons and tusk shells. The study of mollusk is shells is sometimes thought to be outdated, because a species as a whole cannot be understood by one aspect, but shells have been known to provide important taxonomic information. However, historical studies of mollusks heavily relied on shells and many specimens within museums today have very little body matter to study. There are many organizations dedicated to conchology including the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland and Conquiliologistas do Brasil.

It is thought that mollusks were once a primary food source for some primates and that humans may have collected their shells since residing near the oceans. Shell jewelry has been found at nearly all archeological sites, including those that are found inland. Shells have always been a popular item to collect, although the study of mollusk shells did not begin until the end of the seventeenth century, when Martin Lister published his Historia Conchyliorum, which featured a comprehensive text about mollusks and over one thousand engraved plates. George Rumpf, also known as Rumphius, was the first to publish mollusk taxonomy, suggesting names like “two-shelled ones” now known as bivalves and “snails or whelks” now known as gastropods. Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who revolutionized Zoology, adopted many of Rumpf’s terms and described 683 of the currently accepted mollusk species. Other prominent conchologists include the Sowerby family, who collected, sold, and created illustrations of mollusk shells, and R. Tucker Abbott, who was the most well-known conchologist of the 20th century.

Shells are so popular that they have been featured on coins in many areas and have been featured on over five thousand stamps throughout the world. Collectors have even run into fake shells that are said to be from rare or entirely new species. Shells can be found in museums throughout the world, but most of the mollusk shell collections in museums are used for scientific research purposes and are not available for the public to view. The largest collection of mollusk shells resides in the Smithsonian Institution and represents fifty thousand species. Collections appear in other museums including the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel Island, Florida, which is the only museum in the world dedicated to shells, the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, France.

Image Caption: Calliostoma tigris from near Wellington, New Zealand. Credit: Graham Bould/Wikipedia