Shells? Who needs shells?

Exams all done now, so back to the fun of blogging about awesome animals!

So far, the molluscs we have looked at have had some sort of shell, but not all molluscs have taken the shelled path.

Today, and in the next post, we are going to meet some which prefer to be without shells, and are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful molluscs around: So, without further ado, let me introduce you to todays topic: the nudibranch (from the Latin nudus meaning naked, and the Greek brankhia meaning gills, so literally, “naked gills”)

Berghia coerulescens, a species of nudibranch. Image from wikipedia

This group of animals has a whole lot of awesomeness going on, some of which we will cover today, and then it will spill over into the next post too!

For today, lets take a look at the one in the video, it is called Glaucus atlanticusm and the reason it is awesome for me, is that, despite being a squishy little sea-slug like thing, around 3cm long, it eats these:

Physalia physalis (Better known as the Portuguese Man O’ War) Image from wikipedia

Now, if there is one thing we know about Portuguese Man O’ War, it is that it has a very nasty sting, due to the trailing tentacles being full of cells which can fire toxic darts into its prey (or into an unsuspecting persons leg) (See link HERE for post about Man O’ War)

So how does Glaucus cope with these stings? There is a hypothesis that it releases mucus while eating the tentacles (Yes, because it is small, and the PMOW is much larger, it nibbles its way up the tentacles), which protects its insides from the stings, which can remain active for a period of time after the Man O’ War is dead.

To make it even cooler, it takes some of these stings, and uses them in its own defense. It goes a little something like this:

Glaucus eats the tentacle with the stinging nematocysts within it.  Some of these pass through digestion, and end up in growths on the outside of the animal, called cerata. These then become part of the animals defense systems, meaning it can fire them at any attackers.

It has primitive teeth (denticles) which it uses to chomp through its prey, but also to hang onto them

So, this is a fairly cool animal so far, but, it gets even more amazing when you find out some other details about it.

This lovely little animal floats upside down, so its top side is in the water, and its underside is at the surface.  It floats because it has a bubble of air in its stomach, but this means it has no way of steering, so it floats around as the winds or currents take it

In common with many fish which are found near the surface (Sharks for example), it uses a form of camouflage which is known as countershading

Its “top” (Which is in the water) is light silvery grey, so it is difficult to spot from below, whilst its “bottom” is a deeper blue, or blue and white, which helps it blend in with the water when seen from above.

I will leave this last image of Glaucus atlanticus for you, and next post we will look at some of the other animals in this family.

Glaucus Atlanticus. Image from EOL (Encylopedia of Life)


Back with bivalves…

So, its the new year now, I hope everyone had a nice new year, with not too many hangovers!

Last time, way back in October, I wrote about bivalves (HERE), and wanted to pick up where we left off, so today is about their vision and movement, as promised.

I am going to focus on scallops (Pectinidae) as they have both interesting eyes, and strange movement.

Let’s start out with the eyes.  You and me have two eyes, and this is a fairly common number of eyes to have, Scallops however, seem to be quite fond of eyes, usually having between 40 and 70, but they can have up to 100!

Eyes on a giant scallop, the dark blue dots along the rim of the shell. (Image from Wikipedia)

Now, not all eyes function the same way as ours do, we have already met organisms with eyespots, which are just a bunch of light sensitive cells able to distinguish between light and shade so the organism can move away from predators, or towards the light for photosynthesis. (HERE)

The eyes of scallops are what is known as concave mirror eyes.  These are “simple” eyes, which have a reflective layer at the back of the eye, which bounces light back onto the cells which are able to process the light. As they have so many eyes, positioned along the edge of their shell, they are able to follow an object as it moves past them, rather than having to move their eye to keep it in focus.  They also have two retina in each eye, one which responds to light, and one which responds to darkness.

Scallop Eye, showing the reflecting surface at the back which bounces light to the rods. (Image from

I have been trying to find other diagrams showing this, and have come up with a couple of sites, depending on how techy of an explanation you want: has a very simple diagram (HERE), and a little video explaining the basics of eye variation (HERE).  For the more technical diagrams and explanations, this paper by M.F.Land (1965) is interesting (HERE), as well as this illustrative paper by Colicchia et al (2009)   (HERE). One final paper on comparative morphology (similarities and differences between the parts in different organisms) from Speiser & Johnson (2008) (HERE)

So, apart from having more eyes than that teacher at school who always spotted you chatting (Not that I was ever talking during class, of course!), what else is cool about these bivalves?

Well..I think sometimes a video says way more than I can by rambling, so lets take a look at how these scallops move:

This movement is done by using muscles at the back of the shell to open and close it, this pushes water out of the shell, and the scallop shoots off like one of those bottle rockets you make as a kid with fizzy drinks!  They can control the direction of the jet of water, so it is not a completely random motion.



Bivalves…Sucking and Sieving

Today we pick back up with our journey through evolution and natural history.

Last time we met the Spider Conch and today, we meet some of its relatives, the bivalves.   As the name suggests, these animals have two shells, and the ones you probably know best are oysters and clams.  Today I will write about the various feeding methods of these animals, and then the next post will be on movement and vision.

There are bivalves which resemble a 2-shelled animal we met earlier, the brachiopod (HERE), and so can be easily confused.

The first bivalve I would like you to meet today is Pedum spondyloideum, or the blue-lipped coral oyster. I am mostly showing you this one because I think it is spectacularly beautiful

Blue lipped coral oyster. Image from wikipedia

This is a teeny tiny scallop (or Pectinidae to give it the proper family name), which lives between corals.  These are in the same order as oysters (Ostreoida), so are related to them, but are in a different family to what me and you know as oysters.

There is an important differences between these, and the other molluscs we have met so far;

General anatomy of a bivalve. Image from Merriam-Webster

I mentioned before (HERE) that molluscs have a rather cool tongue called a radula, which is essentially lots of rows of tiny teeth that they use for scraping food off of surfaces.

If you look at the diagram above, there is no label saying “radula”.  This is because bivalves do not have one!  (They also do not have a head!) The image below shows the internal structure of a clam, and will help me explain what they do instead of scraping food:

Internal anatomy of a clam, image from Encyclopedia Britannica

In the image above, you can see something labelled the “incurrent siphon” and the “excurrent siphon”. As these animals breathe (by extracting oxygen from the water), they cause small currents around their gills.  These currents contain not just water, but yummy particles of food, which get moved towards the gills.  There are cilia (those small hair-like wavey things we have bumped into a lot) on the gills, which move these currents towards tiny pores.

If you take a peek at the top diagram, there is something labelled as the “labial palps”.  These, and the gills produce mucus (like you do when you have a cold), and this covers the food particles and they fall down towards the mouth where they are eaten.  So yes, they do eat food covered in snot!  Large particles like sand fall down into the mantle, and are carried out by cilia again (those little hairs just get everywhere don’t they?). Sometimes these particles get stuck in the mantle, and become irritating, at which point they become pearls (although not the sort we use for decoration, they are formed differently).

This method of feeding is known as filter feeding, and is how most bivalves eat. There are some species however, who obtain their food using a method known as deposit feeding.

This is thought to be the original form of feeding for bivalves.  Instead of the gills assisting in filtering food, they are used purely for breathing, whilst the labial palp has tubes attached to it which stick out to grab food from the sand or mud.  Food which is caught in currents moving towards the gills is also grabbed and eaten.

Still other species use symbiosis with small organisms (a lot like the corals do) whereby these organisms carry out photosynthesis and the bivalve gets most of its nutrition that way, while doing a small amount of filter feeding.  The most well known example of this is the giant clam, which is a huge animal, up to 1.2m or so long.

Giant clam, image from wikipedia

These animals are so huge that they are not able to move, so they sit on the sea floor, often in places like the Great Barrier Reef:

Giant clam on the Great Barrier Reef. Image from National Geographic

The bacteria, and dinoflagellates which I wrote about HERE obtain food by photosynthesis, like plants do, and then the Giant Clam feeds on the by-products produced, as shown in this video:

One final point about bivalve feeding.  Because they filter feed, they also perform a role in cleaning water, which benefits other organisms in their ecosystem, and mussels can be used as an indicator of how polluted a body of water is.  This is because as they feed, heavy metals and other pollutants are filtered, and build up within their bodies as they are unable to process them (like us with mercury etc).  So, if you measure the levels of these pollutants in mussels and other bivalves, it gives you an idea of how polluted the area is.

This video shows oysters and how they can function as filterers of water:

As mentioned in the video, populations of bivalves are decreasing in some areas, and this means they are less able to filter the water, which in turn has an impact on the other animals and plants in the ecosystem.

Stalks, eyes and feet

Last time I wrote about life on Earth, we covered Cowries, and how they were used as currency.  We are staying within the molluscs still, as there are a couple more organisms I want to show you, to illustrate the different solutions that have been found to the same problems, namely feeding, and getting around.

Today, we are going to meet the cutely named Lambis lambis, or one of the Spider Conch molluscs, we may also meet some of its relatives.

Everyone knows what a conch shell looks like, it is the famous “Listen to the ocean in this” shell, and the ones you may have seen probably look like this:

A shell of Lobatas gigas, the Queen Conch. Image from wikipedia

This is the shell of Lambis lambis:

Lambis lambis shell. Image from

I have already covered how shells are formed, by secretions from the mantle, the fleshy part of the mollusc, so that is not what I am writing about today, although I am sure I will write a post about how the different shell shapes arise at some point!

The shell above has spikes all around it, and one long spike at the bottom.  The long spike at the bottom is where we will start today, because it is actually functional, it is called the Anterior siphon canal, and it provides support for an appendage called a siphon, which is an extension of the mantle.  This structure draws water into the cavity within the animal, and passes water over the gills, assisting in getting oxygen from the water, but also acting as a “nose” (Otherwise known as a chemoreceptor) to help the animal find food.

Lambis lambis is a herbivore, but this does not mean it is not guided towards food by what we would know as smells.

Here is what the external (outside the mantle cavity) body parts of Lambis lambis looks like:

Morphology of Lambis lambis. Image from University of Queensland

There are several features of this mollusc (and all conchs), which I want to elaborate a bit on, as I think they are fairly cool.

Firstly, the radula (the toothy tongue thing we met HERE), which is usually contained within the cavity, is actually on the end of the part labelled “proboscis”, so it has a stalk with its mouth on the end, and the radula too.

Here is a video of one chomping away happily on some algae, note the eyes which are also out on stalks, these are checking out the area for predators while it is eating, and if one is spotted, it pulls itself back inside its shell.  I personally like the eye stalks, as they look a little bit like cartoon alien eyes.

All true conchs are herbivores, (that is, ones which are members of the Strombidae family).  Other animals are known as conchs too, and not all these are herbivores, for example the crown conch (Melongena corona) feeds on oysters and clams by using its proboscis to pry open a bit of their shell and eat them from inside their shell.

The other very obvious structure in the morphology picture is the foot, and the part labelled “operculum”.  This is used to dig into the sediment to..well..propel the animal, or turn it over if it gets upside down.  I think this is easier to see than to explain, so here are two videos showing this in action:

Finally, here is a video showing this funky creature moving along a flat surface:

It is not just us humans who like these shells…hermit crabs also use them as mobile homes, as these two videos show:

I hope I have shown you some things so next time you see one of these pretty shells, you also think about the very cool animal which lives inside it.

Shells and cash

The last post about Life on Earth was about Cowries, and I said that this time I would write about some of the ways they have been part of human society for a very long time.

Cowries as we saw, have very shiny, smooth shells, and this has led to them being used a currency throughout both ancient history, and modern times:

This is a species called Monetaria moneta, which looks like this:

Monetaria moneta (also called Cyprea moneta). Image from

As you may have noticed, the name of this animal sounds a lot like the word “money”, and in fact, this particular Cowry, and one or two other species, have been used historically as currency.

In China, they were used as currency from at least 1200 BC, and the Chinese Han character for money is the same character as for sea shell.

Cowrie shells from ca 900 BC, image from University of Maine

They were also used in Bengal in India as currency, and widely used throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

They were extensively used in the Maldives

Many African nations also used shells as currency, and during the slave trade era, Europeans would use cowrie shells in exchange for slaves, and there was a trade in cowrie shells between Asia and Europe for use in Africa.  Excavations of sites in the USA have uncovered cowrie shells in both the slave houses, and the houses of people who were involved in the slave trade (See further reading).

The use of shells as currency within Africa continued until the early 20th century, and in Ghana, some of their coins display cowrie shells as the image on one side.

20 Cedis coin from Ghana, image from the British Museum

Mondays post will be staying within Molluscs, but moving on to another amazing animal!

Further Reading:


Shiny, curly shells

We are staying in the mollusc family for a while, but moving on from the limpets we met in the last two posts.  Today and Wednesday are about a particularly interesting mollusc, which has been valued by humans for a very long time!

I would like to introduce you to the Cowry, or Cypraeidae.  When I first started writing this post, I was not sure how much I would have to put in it, but, as I have been researching it, I have found more and more interesting stuff!

Onyx Cowry (Erronea onyx), found in the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Ocean, from Australia to Madagascar. Image from Wild Singapore

This amazing looking animal is Talparia talpaand the shiny glowy thing you can see is its shell!  The black bit is its mantle (The fleshy bit from which the shell is secreted)

Talparia talpa, with fully extended mantle. Image from EOL (Encyclopedia of Life)

This animal has a very glossy shell in comparison to other molluscs because, instead of secreting from the top of the mantle (The mantle is the fleshy part protecting the internal organs), this shell is secreted downwards, other molluscs secrete their shells from the bottom up, so the inside of their shells is nice and glossy and shiny (the inside of a Conch shell for example), Cowrys start secreting from the top down, meaning the top layer is the newest, and so nice and shiny and glossy.

Most mollusca (the group which the Cowry belongs to) have a mantle as a single layer of flesh under their shell, as in this diagram:

General Mollusc Anatomy: Image from Marine Education Society of Australia

In this group of molluscs however, the mantle forms two halves, which can be clearly seen in the picture with the black mantle.  This wraps around the shell from each side.  The reason it is not fleshy coloured, as might be expected, but can come in a wide range of textures and colours is for camouflage.  Many of these animals will have mantles exactly matching the sponges and corals on which they live!

I have been digging around to find out why these animals may have their shell on the inside, rather than the outside, and have not been able to find a definitive answer, although, if I was asked to suggest a reason, I would say that the camouflage possibilities of a bit of skin are more diverse than those of a shell, which once secreted, is fixed, and that it does not really matter if the shell is exterior or interior if its function is to protect the internal organs.  Also, a shell is not really very good for sensing surroundings, and the mantle could maybe be sensitive to changes in the surroundings indicating predators, other dangers or food approaching.

Next time I will write about how these animals have played a role in human society for a very long time, and their current global status.

Limpets….Going where squirrels fear to tread!


Ok, so when we left off yesterday, I had introduced you to some Limpets, and we had looked a bit at how they are not as static as they seem.

Today we are going where squirrels fear to tread, to some truly bizarre habitats.  I hope I can show you some new places which you did not know about, and if you knew about them, then I hope I can show you something interesting  anyway.

Our Limpet friend for the day is Neolepedtopsidae (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either, so I will go with “neoleppytopsy” or Topsy for short).  This is a newishly described family of limpets, first described in 1990, and the name means “New lepedtopsidae”, which does not make it any clearer, but, the Lepedtopsidae are an extinct group of limpets, so this is a family which has evolved from the ancient group.

I said yesterday that limpets are found on beaches, which makes it a little strange that we discovered this family only in 1990, as, most beaches are fairly well explored.

This is an image of a species called Eulepetopsis vitrea, which are part of the family of Neolepedtopsidae.

Eulepetopsis vitrea, image from EOL (Encylopedia of Life)

So, where was this lovely little animal hiding?  Let me show you what these animals consider an upmarket address:

The East Pacific Rise, home to our lovely little limpet. Image from Wikipedia

As that is a little zoomed out (Sort of a neighbourhood shot), lets zoom in a little, and see an image from one of my favourite institutions (I used to really want to work there, but I have a thing for water after a bumpy ferry journey in the UK, so not so into that now), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute:

Black Smoker on the East Pacific Rise. Image from Woods Hole Institute

Yes, that is a robotic arm that you see in the photo, but it is not because Terminator has happened and the robots are now running the world, it is because these are at a depth of  anything up to 2-3km underwater.  Not quite as deep as the mid-ocean trenches (These reach 10km in the deepest parts!), but still a bit beyond dive range!

I have cunningly managed to fit two of my favourite subjects, geology and ecology into this post, so here comes the sneaky geology part:

The East Pacific Rise runs from just north of Antarctica to California, and is the line running up the right hand side of the ocean floor on this image:

East Pacific Rise, image from Wikipedia

This is what the shape of the “land” looks like at the East Pacific Rise (This is called a bathymetric image, if it was above ground, it would be a topographical map, those circles you see drawn onto maps show height, and this does the same thing, only underwater…It is called bathymetry instead of topometry because it is underwater, and means “deep measures” in greek)

Bathymetric image of the East Pacific Rise, image from NOAA

The reds indicate the highest parts of the ridge, and as it goes through yellow, to green to blue, it gets deeper.  I am a bit fanatical about these undersea areas, because a) they are very very cool, and b) they have amazing features and creatures that we have only just begun to discover.

So, what on earth is this Pacific Rise, and what is it doing messing up the nice smooth ocean bottom?  Well….until the late 19th century, we had no idea what the ocean floor looked like, and many people thought it was flat and featureless, and probably not very deep.  Then an expedition was sent out to map the ocean floor by the Royal Navy, and they did this by chucking lengths of rope with distance markers over the side of the ship (this is known as sounding, which refers to any technique for measuring depth).  Luckily, they took a lot of rope with them, because, as they were going across the Atlantic, they hit a spot where the rope just kept going and going.  It finally hit the bottom at just over 8km deep, in an area known as the “Challenger Deep” (You might have heard of this from when James Cameron did his dive there earlier this year).

After the second world war, there was an increase in ocean mapping (Well, they had to put all those ships and sonar to good use), and as the data was compiled from these expeditions, it became clear that there were a series of lines running round the oceans, and that there were ridges as well as deep valleys.  This is one of the things which helped prove tectonic plate theory, and caused a lot of discussion at the time, about whether the results from sonar had been interpreted correctly, as obviously there was not a complete map of the ocean floor, so maybe they had filled bits in wrong.

The reason the discovery of these ridges helped prove plate tectonics is because, whilst it had been suggested that the continents had been closer together, and even joined into a super continent,and there was geological evidence for this, rocks from different continents matching together, but there did not seem to be a mechanism which could explain what the ocean was doing in the middle of the continents now.

The ridges are where new crust is formed, magma rises up from below the crust, and at the mid ocean ridges spills out, creating new ocean crust.  This is then carried across the oceans, until it reaches the edges of the continental plates, where subduction occurs, and it is pulled back down below the crust as the ocean plate goes under the continental plates.  This is also the reason why the ocean floor is so young compared to other rocks on the surface, with the oldest parts of the ocean floor (near the subduction zones) being a little under 200 million years old.  In contrast, some of the oldest continental rocks are 3.8 billion years old.  So, the big red ridge on the image is where new ocean floor is formed, and as the new material is continuously ejected from below the mantle, it pushes the other material away from the ridge, in the East Pacific Rise, this happens at a rate of 6-16cm per year.

The black smokers, which our limpets live on and around, are formed when sea water (Which is very cold at those depths), gets into the cracks in the ridge.  This means that very cold water under pressure  meets very hot molten rock.  The water becomes superheated, it cannot turn to gas because of the pressures at those depths, so it is liquid water at 400 degrees.  At this temperature, it is less dense than the surrounding water, and so shoots up in a column.  The reason that it is not clear water is because it has dissolved minerals in it from inside the crust, and is very rich in sulfur compounds.

This sounds like very hostile conditions for life….no sunlight, very hot water spewing out of cracks, lots of sulfur, and very high pressure (25 atmospheres at 2500m deep, at sea level, the pressure is 1 atmosphere), but, surprisingly, our very few expeditions to these locations has uncovered an amazing array of organisms thriving!

Instead of phototrophs like we have at the surface, the primary producers (equivalent of trees) are chemotrophs, which make their food from the sulfur and other chemicals emitted by the vents, and a whole food web, right up to fairly large predators, there has even been an octopus sighted near one of these vents!

These vents are of great interest to science, and a branch of biology called Astrobiology, which is concerned with the possibility of life on other planets, is interested in these vents as they illustrate how life can survive in an environment without oxygen and sunlight, and in acidic, sulfur rich conditions. (Astrobiology is also called Exobiology).

For me, these vents are one of the reasons I feel that we need to investigate our planet before venturing into space.  According to NOAA, we have covered less than 0.1% of the ocean ridges with our submersible expeditions (They tend to return to the same locations), and overall, we have explored less than 5% of the deep ocean, and the bits we have explored have revealed some amazing creatures, so what else is hiding down there, waiting for us to investigate?  The bottom trawling which occurs in much of the worlds oceans tends to flatten the bottom of the ocean where the trawlers fish, and damages seamounts, which are underwater mountains, home to many communities as yet undiscovered by humans, yet being damaged by deep sea trawling.

We only discovered these vents in the 1970s, and have barely begun investigating the deep ocean, so I look forward to many more exciting discoveries in the future.

Finally, here are some images of the communities which exist by these vents…the density of organisms is astounding!

Crabs and mussels on a deep sea vent, image from

An Octopus living near an Antarctic Hydrothermal vent. Image from Scientific American

Finally, here is a video showing a “Yeti crab”(Kiwa hirsuta) colony, again, near Antarctica.

I hope I have shown you some interesting things today, and that you did not fall asleep in my wall of text!