Gastropod shell

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Shells of two different species of sea snail: on the left is the normally sinistral (left-handed) shell of Neptunea angulata, on the right is the normally dextral (right-handed) shell of Neptunea despecta Neptunea - links&rechts gewonden.jpg
Shells of two different species of sea snail: on the left is the normally sinistral (left-handed) shell of Neptunea angulata , on the right is the normally dextral (right-handed) shell of Neptunea despecta
The shell of a large land snail (probably Helix pomatia) with parts broken off to show the interior structure.
1 - umbilicus
2 - columellar plait
3 - aperture
4 - columella
5 - suture
6 - body whorl
7 - apex Czescimuszli shells.jpg
The shell of a large land snail (probably Helix pomatia ) with parts broken off to show the interior structure.
1 – umbilicus
2 – columellar plait
3 – aperture
4 – columella
5 – suture
6 – body whorl
7 – apex
Four views of a shell of Arianta arbustorum: Apertural view (top left), lateral view (top right), apical view (bottom left), and umbilical view (bottom right). Arianta arbustorum - Braunau-1968.jpg
Four views of a shell of Arianta arbustorum : Apertural view (top left), lateral view (top right), apical view (bottom left), and umbilical view (bottom right).

The gastropod shell is part of the body of a gastropod or snail, a kind of mollusc. The shell is an exoskeleton, which protects from predators, mechanical damage, and dehydration, but also serves for muscle attachment and calcium storage. Some gastropods appear shell-less (slugs) but may have a remnant within the mantle, or in some cases the shell is reduced such that the body cannot be retracted within it (semi-slug). Some snails also possess an operculum that seals the opening of the shell, known as the aperture, which provides further protection. The study of mollusc shells is known as conchology. The biological study of gastropods, and other molluscs in general, is malacology. Shell morphology terms vary by species group. [1]


Shell layers

The gastropod shell has three major layers secreted by the mantle. The calcareous central layer, tracum, is typically made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) precipitated into an organic matrix known as conchiolin. The outermost layer is the periostracum which is resistant to abrasion and provides most shell coloration. The body of the snail contacts the innermost smooth layer that may be composed of mother-of-pearl or shell nacre, a dense horizontally packed form of conchiolin, which is layered upon the periostracum as the snail grows.[ citation needed ]


Zonitoides nitidus drawing en.svg
| Zonitoides nitidus shell.jpg
Morphology of typical spirally coiled shell. The shell of Zonitoides nitidus , a land snail, has dextral coiling.

Upper image: Dorsal view, showing whorls and apex
Central image: Lateral view showing the profile of the shell
Lower image: Basal view showing umbilicus in the centre.

Photo of the shell of Zonitoides nitidus with an
apical view, an apertural view and a basal view

Gastropod shell morphology is usually quite constant among individuals of a species. Controlling variables are:

Some of these factors can be modelled mathematically and programs exist to generate extremely realistic images. Early work by David Raup on the analog computer also revealed many possible combinations that were never adopted by any actual gastropod.

Some shell shapes are found more often in certain environments, though there are many exceptions. Wave-washed high-energy environments, such as the rocky intertidal zone, are usually inhabited by snails whose shells have a wide aperture, a relatively low surface area, and a high growth rate per revolution. High-spired and highly sculptured forms become more common in quiet water environments. The shell of burrowing forms, such as the olive and Terebra , are smooth, elongated, and lack elaborate sculpture, in order to decrease resistance when moving through sand. On land, high-spired forms are often associated with vertical surfaces, whereas flat-shelled snails tend to live on the ground.

A few gastropods, for instance the Vermetidae, cement the shell to, and grow along, solid surfaces such as rocks, or other shells.


Most gastropod shells are spirally coiled. The majority (over 90%) [2] of gastropod species have dextral (right-handed) shells, but a small minority of species and genera are virtually always sinistral (left-handed), and a very few species (for example Amphidromus perversus [3] ) show a mixture of dextral and sinistral individuals. There occur also aberrantly sinistral forms of dextral species and some of these are highly sought by shell collectors. [ citation needed ]

The left-handed turrid (Antiplanes vinosa) Antiplanes vinosa 001.jpg
The left-handed turrid (Antiplanes vinosa)

If a coiled gastropod shell is held with the spire pointing upwards and the aperture more or less facing the observer, a dextral shell will have the aperture on the right-hand side, and a sinistral shell will have the aperture on the left-hand side. This chirality of gastropods is sometimes overlooked when photographs of coiled gastropods are "flipped" by a non-expert prior to being used in a publication. This image "flipping" results in a normal dextral gastropod appearing to be a rare or abnormal sinistral one.

Sinistrality arose independently 19 times among marine gastropods since the start of the Cenozoic. [4] This left-handedness seems to be more common in freshwater and land pulmonates. But still the dextral living species in gastropods seem to account for 99% of the total number. [5]

The chirality in gastropods appears in early cleavage (spiral cleavage) and the gene NODAL is involved. [6] A more recent study (2013) correlates the asymmetric coiling of the shell by the left-right asymmetric expression of the decapentaplegic gene in the mantle. [7]

Mixed coiling populations

In a few cases, both left- and right-handed coiling are found in the same population. [8] Sinistral mutants of normally dextral species and dextral mutants of normally sinistral species are rare but well documented occurrences among land snails in general. [8] Populations or species with normally mixed coiling are much rarer, and, so far as is known, are confined, with one exception, to a few genera of arboreal tropical snails. [8] Besides Amphidromus , the Cuban Liguus vittatus (Swainson), Haitian Liguus virgineus (Linnaeus) (family Orthalicidae), some Hawaiian Partulina and many Hawaiian Achatinella (family Achatinellidae), as well as several species of Pacific islands Partula (family Partulidae), are known to have mixed dextral-sinistral populations. [8]

A possible exception may concern some of the European clausiliids of the subfamily Alopiinae. [8] They are obligatory calciphiles living in isolated colonies on limestone outcrops. [8] Several sets of species differ only in the direction of coiling, but the evidence is inconclusive as to whether left- and right-handed shells live together. [8] Soos (1928, pp. 372–385)[ full citation needed ] summarized previous discussions of the problem and concluded that the right- and left-handed populations were distinct species. [8] Others have stated that these populations were not distinct, and the question is far from settled. [8] The Peruvian clausiliid, Nenia callistoglypta Pilsbry (1949, pp. 216–217),[ full citation needed ] also has been described as being an amphidromine species. [8]

The genetics of reverse coiling in a rare dextral mutant of another clausiliid, Alinda biplicata (Montagu), has been studied by Degner (1952). [8] The mechanism is the same as in Radix peregra (Müller), with the direction of coiling determined by a simple Mendelian recessive. [8]

Standard ways of viewing a shell

In photographs or illustrations, a gastropod shell can be shown oriented in a number of standard ways:


Spiral tower shell of Epitonium scalare. Epitonium-scalare--Trp-6.png
Spiral tower shell of Epitonium scalare .

The shell begins with the larval shell, the (usually) minute embryonic whorls known as the protoconch, which is often quite distinct from the rest of the shell and has no growth lines. From the protoconch, which forms the apex of the spire, the coils or whorls of the shell gradually increase in size. Normally the whorls are circular or elliptical in section. The spire can be high or low, broad or slender, according to the way the coils of the shell are arranged, and the apical angle of the shell varies accordingly. The whorls sometimes rest loosely upon one another (as in Epitonium scalare ). They also can overlap the earlier whorls such that the earlier whorls may be largely or wholly covered by the later ones. When an angulation occurs, the space between it and the suture above it constitutes the area known as the "shoulder" of the shell. The shoulder angle may be smooth or keeled, and may sometimes have nodes or spines.

The most simple form of sculpture of the gastropod shell consists of longitudinal ridges, and/or transverse ridges. Primary spirals may appear in regular succession on either side of the first primary, which generally becomes the shoulder angle if angulation occurs. Secondary spirals may appear by intercalation between the primary ones, and generally are absent in the young shell, except in some highly accelerated types. Tertiary spirals are intercalated between the preceding groups in more specialized species. Ribs are regular transverse foldings of the shell, which generally extend from the suture to suture. They are usually spaced uniformly and crossed by the spirals. In specialized types, when a shoulder angle is formed, they become concentrated as nodes upon this angle, disappearing from the shoulder above and the body below. Spines may replace the nodes in later stages. They form as notches in the margin of the shell and are subsequently abandoned, often remaining open in front. Irregular spines may also arise on various parts of the surface of the shell (see Platyceras ).

When a row of spines is formed at the edge or outer lip of the shell during a resting period, this feature sometimes remains behind as a varix as in ( Murex ) and many of the Ranellidae. Varices may also be formed by simple expansion of the outer lip, and a subsequent resumption of growth from the base of the expansion.

The aperture or peristome of the shell may be simple or variously modified. An outer and an inner (columellar) lip are generally recognized. These may be continuous with each other, or may be divided by an anterior notch. This, in some types ( Fusinus , etc.) it is drawn out into an anterior siphonal canal, of greater or lesser length.

An upper or posterior notch is present in certain taxa, and this may result in the formation of a ridge or shelf next to the suture ( Clavilithes ). An outer (lateral) emargination or notch, sometimes prolonged into a slit occurs in certain types (Pleurotomidae, Pleurotomaridae, Bellerophontidae, etc.), and the progressive closing of this slit may give rise to a definitely marked slit band. In some cases the slit is abandoned and left as a hole (Fissurellidae), or by periodic renewal as a succession of holes ( Haliotis ). The outer emargination is often only indicated by the reflected course of the lines of growth on the shell.

On the inside of the outer lip, various ridges or plications called lirae are sometimes found, and these occasionally may be strong and tooth-like ( Nerinea ). Similar ridges or columellar plicae or folds are more often found on the inner lip, next to the columella or central spiral twist. These may be oblique or normal to the axis of coiling (horizontal), few or numerous, readily seen, or far within the shell so as to be invisible except in broken shells. When the axis of coiling is hollow (perforate spire) the opening at the base constitutes the umbilicus. The umbilicus varies greatly in size, and may be wholly or in part covered by an expansion or callus of the inner lip ( Natica ).

Many Recent shells, when the animal is alive or the shell is freshly empty, have an uppermost shell layer of horny, smooth, or hairy epidermis or periostracum, a proteinaceous layer which sometimes is thick enough to hide the color markings of the surface of the shell. The periostracum, as well as the coloration, is only rarely preserved in fossil shells.

The apertural end of the gastropod shell is the anterior end, nearest to the head of the animal; the apex of the spire is often the posterior end or at least is the dorsal side. Most authors figure the shells with the apex of the spire uppermost. In life, when the soft parts of these snail are retracted, in some groups the aperture of the shell is closed by using a horny or calcareous operculum, a door-like structure which is secreted by, and attached to, the upper surface of the posterior part of the foot. The operculum is of very variable form in the different groups of snails that possess one. [9]

Parts of the shell

A drawing of an abnormal scalarid form of the shell of the garden snail, Cornu aspersum Helix aspersa scalarid.png
A drawing of an abnormal scalarid form of the shell of the garden snail, Cornu aspersum

The terminology used to describe the shells of gastropods includes:

Shape of the shell

The overall shape of the shell varies. For example, three groups can be distinguished based on the height – width ratio: [10]

The following are the principal modifications of form in the gastropod shell. [11]

Detailed distinction of the shape can be: [12] [13]

Schematic representation of the apical, apertural and basal view of a shell, showing 14 different commonly used measurements. Dotted lines represent the orientation axes (except of lower image). Gastropod shell measuring.png
Schematic representation of the apical, apertural and basal view of a shell, showing 14 different commonly used measurements. Dotted lines represent the orientation axes (except of lower image).


The most frequently used measurements of a gastropod shell are: the height of the shell, the width of the shell, the height of the aperture and the width of the aperture. The number of whorls is also often used.

In this context, the height (or the length) of a shell is its maximum measurement along the central axis. The width (or breadth, or diameter) is the maximum measurement of the shell at right angles to the central axis. Both terms are only related to the description of the shell and not to the orientation of the shell on the living animal.

The largest height of any shell is found in the marine snail species Syrinx aruanus , which can be up to 91 cm. [14]

The central axis is an imaginary axis along the length of a shell, around which, in a coiled shell, the whorls spiral. The central axis passes through the columella, the central pillar of the shell.

Evolutionary changes

Among proposed roles invoked for the variability of shells during evolution include mechanical stability, [15] defense against predators [16] and climatic selection. [17] [18]

The shells of some gastropods have been reduced or partly reduced during their evolution. This reduction can be seen in all slugs, in semi-slugs and in various other marine and non-marine gastropods. Sometimes the reduction of the shell is associated with a predatory way of feeding.

Some taxa lost the coiling of their shell during evolution. [19] According to Dollo's law, it is not possible to regain the coiling of the shell after it is lost. Despite that, there are few genera in the family Calyptraeidae that changed their developmental timing (heterochrony) and gained back (re-evolution) a coiled shell from the previous condition of an uncoiled limpet-like shell. [19]

Taphonomic implications

In large enough quantities, gastropod shells can have enough of an impact on environmental conditions to affect the ability of organic remains in the local environment to fossilize. [20] For example, in the Dinosaur Park Formation, fossil hadrosaur eggshell is rare. [20] This is because the breakdown of tannins from local coniferous vegetation would have caused the ancient waters to become acidic. [20] Eggshell fragments are present in only two microfossil sites, both of which are predominated by the preserved shells of invertebrate life, including gastropods. [20] It was the slow dissolution of these shells releasing calcium carbonate into the water that raised the water's pH high enough to prevent the eggshell fragments from dissolving before they could be fossilized. [20]

Variety of forms

Related Research Articles

Sinistral and dextral, in some scientific fields, are the two types of chirality ("handedness") or relative direction. The terms are derived from the Latin words for "left" (sinister) and "right" (dexter). Other disciplines use different terms or simply use left and right.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spire (mollusc)</span> Part of a mollusc shell

A spire is a part of the coiled shell of molluscs. The spire consists of all of the whorls except for the body whorl. Each spire whorl represents a rotation of 360°. A spire is part of the shell of a snail, a gastropod mollusc, a gastropod shell, and also the whorls of the shell in ammonites, which are fossil shelled cephalopods.

<i>Achatinella</i> Genus of tree snails

Achatinella is a tropical genus of colorful land snails in the monotypic Achatinellidae subfamily Achatinellinae. Species are arboreal pulmonate gastropod mollusks with some species called Oʻahu tree snails or kāhuli in the Hawaiian language.

<i>Achatinella byronii</i> Species of gastropod

Achatinella byronii is a species of air-breathing land snail, a terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusk in the family Achatinellidae. This species is endemic to Oahu, in the Hawaiian Islands.

<i>Amphidromus</i> Genus of land snails

Amphidromus is a genus of tropical air-breathing land snails, terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusks in the family Camaenidae. The shells of Amphidromus are relatively large, from 25 mm (0.98 in) to 75 mm (3.0 in) in maximum dimension, and particularly colorful. During the 18th century, they were among the first Indonesian land snail shells brought to Europe by travelers and explorers. Since then, the genus has been extensively studied: several comprehensive monographs and catalogs were authored by naturalists and zoologists during the time period from the early 19th to the mid 20th centuries. Modern studies have focused on better understanding the evolutionary relationships within the group, as well as solving taxonomic problems.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Columella (gastropod)</span> Gastropod anatomy

The columella or pillar is a central anatomical feature of a coiled snail shell, a gastropod shell. The columella is often only clearly visible as a structure when the shell is broken, sliced in half vertically, or viewed as an X-ray image.

Felipponea elongata is a species of large freshwater snail with an operculum, an aquatic gastropod mollusk in the family Ampullariidae, the apple snail family.

The following is a glossary of common English language and scientific terms used in the description of gastropods.

<i>Kurtziella rhysa</i> Species of gastropod

Kurtziella rhysa is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Mangeliidae.

<i>Calliotropis aeglees</i> Species of gastropod

Calliotropis aeglees is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Eucyclidae.

<i>Solariella rhina</i> Species of gastropod

Solariella rhina is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Eucyclidae.

Quinnia ionica is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Seguenziidae.

<i>Conotalopia singaporensis</i> Species of gastropod

Conotalopia singaporensis is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Solariellidae.

<i>Solariella charopa</i> Species of gastropod

Solariella charopa is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Solariellidae.

<i>Solariella obscura</i> Species of gastropod

Solariella obscura, common name the obscure solarelle, is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Solariellidae.

<i>Pseudominolia musiva</i> Species of gastropod

Pseudominolia musiva is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Trochidae, the top snails.

<i>Pictodiloma suavis</i> Species of gastropod

Pictodiloma suavis is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Trochidae, the top snails.

<i>Calliostoma platinum</i> Species of gastropod

Calliostoma platinum is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Calliostomatidae.

<i>Clanculus robertsi</i> Species of gastropod

Clanculus robertsi is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Trochidae, the top snails.

<i>Trochus kochii</i> Species of gastropod

Trochus kochii is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Trochidae, the top snails.


This article incorporates public domain text from references, [1] [8] [9] and CC-BY-2.0 text from reference. [18]

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Further reading

About chirality