Molluscan shell colour

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Abstract

The phylum Mollusca is highly speciose, and is the largest phylum in the marine realm. The great majority of molluscs are shelled, including nearly all bivalves, most gastropods and some cephalopods. The fabulous and diverse colours and patterns of molluscan shells are widely recognised and have been appreciated for hundreds of years by collectors and scientists alike. They serve taxonomists as characters that can be used to recognise and distinguish species, however their function for the animal is sometimes less clear and has been the focus of many ecological and evolutionary studies. Despite these studies, almost nothing is known about the evolution of colour in molluscan shells. This review summarises for the first time major findings of disparate studies relevant to the evolution of shell colour in Mollusca and discusses the importance of colour, including the effects of visual and non-visual selection, diet and abiotic factors. I also summarise the evidence for the heritability of shell colour in some taxa and recent efforts to understand the molecular mechanisms underpinning synthesis of shell colours. I describe some of the main shell pigments found in Mollusca (carotenoids, melanin and tetrapyrroles, including porphyrins and bile pigments), and their durability in the fossil record. Finally I suggest that pigments appear to be distributed in a phylogenetically relevant manner and that the synthesis of colour is likely to be energetically costly.

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