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Malacology FAQs

What is Malacology?

Malacology (mal΄ә käl΄ә jē) is the branch of zoology dealing with the invertebrate phylum Mollusca, the mollusks (e.g., snails, clams, squid, etc.)  [from Greek malakos = soft, + study of]. Because many mollusks have a hard calcareous shell protecting the soft parts, malacology usually refers to the study of those soft parts or of the entire animal. The study of strictly the shell is referred to as conchology [from Greek konchē = shell, + study of], which is sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably with malacology.

What are the major groups of mollusks?

Within the phylum Mollusca are the following living classes of mollusks:

  • Gastropoda (marine, freshwater, and terrestrial snails and slugs);
  • Bivalvia (marine and freshwater clams, and mussels);
  • Scaphopoda (tusk shells);
  • Polyplacophora (multiplated chitons);
  • Aplacophora (wormlike mollusks);
  • Monoplacophora ("primitive" limpetlike mollusks);
  • Cephalopoda (squid, octopus, cuttlefish, and chambered nautilus)

What does a malacologist do?

Most malacologists have a graduate degree in zoology or biology from an accredited university. Professional malacologists are employed at museums, universities,government agencies, and private companies. Some are self-employed and provide consulting services to a variety of organizations. Malacologists study various aspects of mollusk biology, including neurology, physiology, and reproductive biology. Others study molluscan systematics, ecology, paleontology, aquiculture and fisheries, or mitigating the impact of invasive species. They may even focus on studying mollusks from an anthropological standpoint to determine past travel routes and cultural interchange among Native Americans.

What is the largest shell?

  •  The largest living gastropod is the Australian Trumpet Shell [Syrnix auruanus (Linnaeus, 1758)] from northern Australia, which can reach a length of 80 cm (2.62 ft.) (see Abbott & Dance, 1982, The Compendium of Seashells). The Giant African Landsnail [Achitina fulica (Bowdich, 1822)], native to east Africa and widely introduced to many areas, can weigh up to 900 g (~2 lbs.) and measure 390 mm (~15.5 in.) (see manandmollusc).
  •  The largest living bivalve is the Giant Clam [Tridacna gigas Linnaeus, 1758] from the southwest Pacific and the Philippines. They can measure up to 137 cm (3.7 ft.) and weigh 333 kg (734 lbs.) (see Knop, 1996, Giant Clams).
  • Most scaphopods, polyplacophorans, shelled cephalopods, and monoplacophorans are small and rarely reach eight inches in length.  A notable exception is the Gumboot Chiton [Cryptochiton stelleri (Middendorff, 1847)] found from California to Alaska and Japan that can reach a length of 14 inches (see Abbott, 1974, American Seashells).

Can I collect shells in California?

There is much confusion about where it is legal to collect shells in California. Many of the regulations pertain to invertebrates used as food items including but not limited to abalone, mussels, moon snails, cockles, scallops, oysters, lobsters, shrimp, sand dollars, and sea urchins. Specific rules and regulations about collecting can be found in the 2012-2013 California Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations, p. 44-47.

Dead mollusk shells may be collected in nonprotected areas. Live mollusks can be collected by anyone possessing a current California sportfishing license except as follows:

1. Collecting of all invertebrates is prohibited within State Marine Reserves.  Collecting of certain invertebrates may be prohibited within State Marine Parks and State Marine Conservation areas.

2. Intertidal invertebrates may not be taken in any tidepool or other areas between the high tide mark (defined as Mean Higher High Tide) and 1,000 feet seaward and lateral to low tide mark (defined as Mean Lower Low Water).

3. Where prohibited in State Marine Reserves, State Marine Parks, State Marine Conservation Areas, National Parks or seashores, or other special closures.

Can you really hear the ocean in a seashell?

No, shells cannot generate sounds on their own. Because most shell surfaces are smooth and curved on the inside these make good sound reflectors. Sound waves that enter the shell are combined with echoes of sounds from outside of the shell. When a shell is held to your ear those echoes create sounds much like the noise of the ocean.