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Associated Smithsonian Expert: M. G. (Jerry) Harasewych, Ph.D.

Dr. Jerry Harasewych showing drawer of marine mollusk specimens

Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Jerry Harasewych is a Research Zoologist and Curator of Marine Mollusks at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. His research specialties include the systematics and biogeography of several groups of deep-sea snails. He conducts field work using a variety of research submersibles to sample and observe these animals. Other areas of research include Antarctic mollusks and a highly diverse group of land snails endemic to the tropical western Atlantic. Harasewych first started to work with shells at the age of ten, when he began as a volunteer at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He was an active member and officer of the Philadelphia Shell Club while pursuing an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After completing his doctorate in Biological Oceanography at the College of Marine Studies of the University of Delaware, he moved to the D.C. area and became a Research Fellow in Clinical Neurogenetics at the National Institute of Mental Health. Harasewych joined the Smithsonian in 1985.

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Murex snail (Murex sp.) showing operculum
Courtesy of Jan Delsing, via BioLib.cz, public domain

About Snails and Slugs (Class Gastropoda ): Body Plan

The gastropods are the most diverse group of mollusks, and include snails, slugs, limpets, conchs, sea slugs, and others. They typically have a coiled body form with a twisted gut and nervous system. The coiling results in the unusual arrangement of their anus being above their head. Most have a corresponding coiled shell. Coils are added as the gastropod grows, and they tend to get larger, making a cone shape. Some shells are adorned with spines, grooves, or other textures that add strength. Many have a hard flap (operculum) on the foot that can be closed over the shell opening like a trap door. The shape of a gastropod shell often can be used to identify species. A gastropod's shell not only protects it from predation, but also keeps land species (terrestrial) from drying out. Some terrestrial gastropods that live in humid places, such as slugs, have a thin shell or no shell at all.

Common Pelican's Foot (Aporrhais pespelecani)
Courtesy of Isidro Martinez, via Flickr: EOL Images, CC-BY-NC-SA

About Mollusks (Phylum Mollusca): Body Plan

Mollusks have soft bodies (mollis = soft) with no internal skeleton. They hold their shape by internal water pressure (a hydrostatic skeleton). A muscular skin-like structure called the mantle covers the back of a mollusk, protecting its mass of internal body organs (viscera). Most mollusks also have a hard shell or at least some hard plates over the mantle. Shells are made of a protein matrix holding together crystals of calcium carbonate. Under those layers is a calcium-containing third layer that in some species is shiny mother-of-pearl. This layered structure makes for a strong shell that protects the soft parts from predators and provides a site for muscle attachment. Most mollusks move their bodies slowly using a muscular structure called the foot to creep along, stick to, or burrow into surfaces, although some mollusks (e.g. squid and scallops) swim.

Snail (Indrella ampulla) defecating
Courtesy of Vipin Baliga, via Flickr: EOL Images, CC-BY-NC-SA

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About Mollusks (Phylum Mollusca): Feeding

Most mollusks have a "radula", a ribbon made of chitin with rows of teeth (denticles). The radula is always used to feed, but how it is used varies widely. Radulas are specialized to the diets of mollusks, which range from fully carnivorous to entirely herbivorous. The radula may be used to filter, scrape, crush, cut, or stab, depending what food is eaten. Predatory murexes use the radula to drill holes into other mollusks, whereas limpets use it to scrape algae off rocks. The shape of the radula and denticles can be used to figure out what mollusk it came from. Nudibranchs that feed on corals have long, skinny denticles for scraping the thin layer of flesh off the coral skeleton. Queen conchs have a comb-like radula with thousands of tiny denticles for filtering small food from the water. Regardless, as denticles wear away, they are continuously replaced from top to bottom.

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Scallops (Patinopecten caurinus) for sale at a market in Japan
Courtesy of Dr. Roger Mann, VIMS, via NOAA's Fisheries Collection, public domain

About Mollusks (Phylum Mollusca): Human Use

Mollusks have been exploited by people around the world for thousands of years. Both shelled (snails, clams, scallops, conchs) and unshelled mollusks (squid and octopus) have been popular food items since prehistoric times. Several early societies used shells such as cowries for money. Today, mollusk shells are often collected and sold. Even mollusk waste products have value. A pearl is just shell layers that the mollusk uses to cover debris that gets under its shell. All shelled mollusks make them, but it is the pearl oysters that sometimes make the symmetrical, shiny ones, essentially decorative pieces of dirt. Over the years, mollusks have been used for many other purposes: dyes, decorative inlays, medicines, blades, fishing lures, tweezers, and horns. Overharvesting has endangered many mollusks species, and cultivation of mollusks had emerged as one solution.

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