“On the spot” questionnaire: Jan Light


What do you do for a living?

I live in Dorset and am retired, but I undertake work on molluscs in archaeology, when contractual opportunities arise.


What areas of conchology particularly interest you?

Native marine molluscs within the northeast Atlantic context; marine molluscan distributional studies; marine molluscs in archaeology; conchological books; shell artefacts, shellcraft, shell cards and postcards.


How did your interest in molluscs begin?

When I was between the ages of 6 and 10 my father was posted to Hong Kong.  European children attended school in the mornings only, in the afternoons we were often bussed to a local beach where I inevitably found shells and I started to collect them.  My mother kept all our shells in chocolate boxes and they found their way back to England when we returned.


When and how did you become a member of the Conchological Society?

In 1981 when my own children were 10, 9 and 5 we had a rather bleak winter when they were intermittently down with viruses.  We kept our children indoors when they were ill in those days and during one protracted bout of cabin fever I pulled out the boxes of shells. The children and I sorted the shells, arranged them in ‘kinds’ and when the children were well enough we went to the library to get a book out to name them.  The address of the secretary of the Conchological Society (Terry Crowley) was in the back of one of those books and I applied to join.  Some months later I heard from Beryl Rands that I had been elected to the Society.


In what ways have you been involved in the Society and its activities?

I have always enjoyed the field programme but have been a regular attendee at indoor meetings too.  When I returned from Hong Kong, as the eldest of 4 children I was allowed, as a special treat, to stay with my great aunt Jessie who lived in Earls Court.  I travelled from High Barnet on the underground on my own from what seems to me now to be quite a young age!  Aunt Jess introduced me to the Natural History Museum and I used to spend every Saturday that I could in the Museum with a board, paper and a few coloured pencils, wandering round the exhibits.  I enjoyed the privilege and indipendance, as the eldest child, and the Museum has always had a special resonance for me. 


In due course I was elected to Council as a member then took over from Dennis Seaward as Marine Recorder.  I love recording, the thrill of the chase and making new discoveries.  I have been privileged to serve a term as President.


Do you have a memorable “conchological moment”? 

On one of my earliest field trips I went for a week to Skye.  It was on this trip that I got to know fellow marines, Julia Nunn and Celia Pain well.  I still have to smile when I recall Julia racing me to the shore!!  The shores and collecting were like nothing I had experienced before.  One morning I was walking the water line at Broadford and I came across a pristine white articulated Chlamys nivea lying on the sands, smiling at me.  I went on to find other shells of this species including orange and purple specimens.  This cemented my love for the Pectinidae which is the queen of molluscan genera for me.


If you were marooned on a desert island and could take only one book with you what would it be and why?

This is so difficult.  It is tempting to choose one of my books with beautiful hand-coloured plates but how long would it last?  Then perhaps I might consider a book dealing with the native malacofauna which could be useful, but you aren’t telling me where my island is!  So I think I am going to need something that would take a long time to read and will choose Fretter & Graham’s tome British Prosobranch Molluscs: their functional anatomy and ecology.  By the time I get to the end of it I will need to go back to the beginning to refresh my memory!


If your house was burning down what shell (or shell related item) would you rescue first?

This is a difficult decision but I think I would grab my box of Janthina specimens which contains all the species and includes specimens collected by others including the late Douglas Wilson.  If I could not find it then I have a glazed lidded box which contains assorted shelly items; specimens and artefacts and I think I would be glad to save that.


Is there a shell or mollusc that eludes you and why?

There are a number of species I would love to find alive but the first that springs to mind is the small white parasitic bivalve, Devonia perrieri.  It would mean tracking down its Leptosynapta host, a holothurian.


Where is your favourite location for mollusc/shell hunting and why?

I have several favoured beaches and they are all in Britain and Ireland.  The one I have visited least but would love to return to is Shell Beach on Herm.  It was on that coast that I found Galeomma turtoni attached to the underside of a rock although I had absolutely no idea what it was when I found it.  The two valves were gaping and enmeshed in the soft parts which were attached to the rock limpet-like.  It hardly looked molluscan!



Do you draw any particular inspiration from historical figures in Natural history and why?

It is fortunate that my inspiration is still with us.  She lives in Cornwall and her name will be well known to all Conch Soc members.  Stella Turk was the sitting President when I joined in 1981.  I took a strandline collection of micro-shells from Porthcurno to my first indoor meeting as a display and she helped me identify all my mysteries.  She has been a constant source of advice, information and welcome to her cottage, which is a treasure and something of a Mecca.


Can you recall an interesting mollusc related incident?

We eat quite a bit of seafood in France and usually offer guests at least one Fruits de Mer meal during their stay.  I had been to the poissonerie and bought all the components which included Whelks of which both Nick and I are rather fond.  I had carefully arranged all the various invertebrate items on platters and had seated guests and was inviting people to help themselves when I noticed an unexpected movement from the direction of the Whelk platter.  One of the snails was attempting to right itself and move off the plate.  When I had asked for the whelks (Bulots) I had neglected to tell the fishmonger that I wanted to buy the cooked ones!


What words of advice would you give to a budding conchologist?

Watch more experienced conchologists as they go about their fieldwork.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  It is important that you get the correct name for your shells, particularly if you are going to send your records to the Conchological Society recording schemes.  By all means tackle the business of identifying your shells with the help of the literature and, more and more, the resources on the internet which are becoming more plentiful all the time.  But if you are puzzled, unsure then ask someone more experienced than you.  If they are unsure they will pass you on.  At some point you should get your answer.  If an expert is puzzled you may be on to something!!  Or your shell may just be too worn to identify with confidence.  Asking advice includes how to manage a collection and how to collect, where, when – all the tips that ensure you should come back from a visit to the shore (or whatever habitat you have searched) with some interesting material.


Is there anything else you would like to add?

Shell collecting, in all its manifestations, is a lifelong adventure.

Jan on the shore at Camus Crois, Skye, September 2009, with a Sea Urchin (Echinus esculentus) placed temporarily into fresh water to release any small parasitic gastropods that might be present (the animal was afterwards returned to the shore unharmed).

(Photo: Peter Topley)