Spirals in Time

The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells

By Helen Scales, 2015

Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015, ISBN 978-1-4729-1136-0

Of the many books on shells which have been published over the years, this is as far as I know the first that is neither aimed at the shell collector or specialist, nor a "coffee table" book. It covers an ambitiously wide range of topics, from the evolution of molluscs to the structure of shells to the uses Man has put them to throughout history. Its author, a marine biologist, clearly has a gift for explaining her subject in an interesting and accessible way; her writing style is reminiscent of that of Bill Bryson.

The book begins with the personal story of how the author became interested in molluscs - many shell collectors will be able to identify with this - before introducing the molluscs themselves. It provides an introduction to the phylum Mollusca, including the little-known, shell-less solenogastres and caudofoveates, and an overview of our current understanding of their origins, starting with the putative "proto-molluscs" Wiwaxia and Odontogriphus from the Burgess Shale in the Rockies, which have features of both molluscs and polychaete worms. The structure and immense strength of shells, and possible mechanisms for producing their patterns, and their functions, are explained.

Later chapters cover a diverse range of topics including ritual uses of the shells of Spondylus species by different cultures, the history of the use of Monetaria moneta as money, molluscs as food and how humans have driven many of the species we eat to the brink of extinction, as well as a case of successful management of an edible oyster species in Gambia. There is an intriguing account of "sea silk" - a fabric made from the byssus of Pinna nobilis, and a study of the little-known animal of Argonauta. Also included is a fascinating section on conotoxins - the venoms of the Conidae - and their uses in medical research. The chapter on sea butterflies vividly illustrates the effects climate change is having on the world's oceans, and is a stark reminder of the damage we are doing the planet.

Shell collecting is not a major part of the subject matter of this book, but a large part of one chapter is devoted to the activities of Hugh Cuming, who on his several expeditions in the first half of the 19th century collected more shells by far than any of his contemporaries. The final chapter discusses the modern shell trade, and its possible detrimental effects on mollusc populations. The author is clearly concerned about the impact of the large-scale, relatively unregulated trade in "ornamental" shells.

Perhaps slightly unusually for a book of this nature and small format, there are several pages of colour photographs showing living molluscs as well as shells made into various objects. The collector in me would have liked to see examples of shells of various families depicted, to illustrate the variety of shell forms. I would also have liked to see scientific names used for all the species mentioned, instead of the common names, several of which I did not recognise. But the needs of collectors are catered for by numerous specialist books. This book introduces the world of molluscs to the general reader, and in this it does an excellent job. It contains a wealth of information, much of which which is likely to be new even to most shell collectors, and certainly interesting to all. As such, it should be on the bookshelf of every shell collector, as well as of anyone who has an interest in the natural world.

Spirals in Time

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Copyrightę 2015 British Shell Collectors' Club. All rights reserved.

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