Compendium of Seashells - A Full-Color Guide to More than 4200 of the World's Marine Shells.

Submitted by Steve Wilkinson on Mon, 10/05/2010 23:11

R. Tucker Abbott & S. Peter Dance. Charles Letts & Co., London, ix + 411 pp, 3 black-and-white text figures, numerous colour plates. 1991. ISBN 1852381345.

Review source

Originally reviewed by Endre Sandor in 1992.

Published in Journal of Conchology (1992), Vol.34

This is a reprint of the 3rd edition of the Compendium published in 1986. It differs from the 1st edition (published in 1981) only in the correction of several figure captions (marked by an asterisk) and in the addition of an extra page (p. 411) listing further corrections which are left to the reader to carry out. It starts with a 17-page introduction on the classification, taxonomy, morphology, identification and habitat of marine molluscs, together with useful hints on the care and conservation of shells in collections. The main part of the book is an iconography of over 4200 marine shells, including nearly 1000 bivalves. The species are arranged in family groups whose sequence follows the usual systematic order from the more primitive Pleurotomariidae to the highly developed Nautilidae. All shells are illustrated by colour photographs of approximately the same size (from 3-5 x 5 to 4 x 6 cm). There are up to 12 such photographs on a page, interspersed with short descriptions of family characteristics at the beginning of each new family. The photographs are accompanied by brief captions giving the popular name and the average size of the shell, its scientific name, author, date, habitat, rarity and basic synonymy in a standardized form. There are no morphological descriptions. The iconography is followed by a 12-page taxonomic classification down to family level, combined with a bibliography of the major sources for each family up to 1981. The book ends with a short 2- page index of popular names and a detailed 18-page index of scientific names.

The Compendium is aimed primarily at the amateur conchologist, particularly the general collector of worldwide seashells, looking for a single reference book to aid identification. It covers all the major families whose shells are of 'collectable' size (say not less than 1 cm across), including bivalves which get a short shrift in many shell books. Families of particular interest to collectors (cowries, cones, volutes, scallops etc) are given preferential treatment, reflected in the large number of their species included. The quality of the colour photographs is mostly good, sometimes excellent and only a minority is so indistinct that the shells are hardly recognizable. Two features of the book rather exceed the requirements of its primary target, but they are both welcome by the more serious students of molluscs. One is the inclusion of several hundred shell photographs taken from type specimens, the other is the detailed bibliography of major sources in the classification section.

Besides its many virtues, the Compendium also has some shortcomings. The publisher's claim that it makes shell identification 'quick and certain' is open to question. Since the figure captions don't give morphological description, the identification hinges entirely on the photographs, some of which don't show enough detail to allow an unambiguous conclusion. Others illustrate only a single form of a very variable species, which may be different from the one to be identified. In addition, there are still a number of errors left in the captions which can lead to misidentification. One example is the caption of the first figure on p. 196 which reads: 'Chinese Ancilla. Ancilla rubiginosa Swainson, 1823. China Sea'. It should read: 'Similar Ancilla. Amatda similis (Sowerby, 1829). Mozambique'. Here not only the taxonomy is incorrect but the habitat as well.

Another shortcoming, which specifically applies to the third edition, arises from the lack of updating in the bibliography and the index. When the Compendium was first published in 1981, the bibliography was up to date, and the species names in the captions were in harmony with the index. Neither of these is true in the 3rd edition. The bibliography of the 3rd edition ignores all the molluscan literature published since 1981 and so it is out of date. Furthermore, the name-changes in the corrected captions of the 3rd edition have not been transferred to the index, so that there is now a discrepancy between the captions and the index. Finally, it is rather strange to see a book published in London using American spelling (color, catalog etc.) - a small point, but an irritation.

To sum up: the 1st edition of the Compendium was probably the best book available at that time for its intended readership. Its popular appeal is well reflected in the number of editions and reprints it has reached. Had the 3rd edition been thoroughly revised and its bibliography and index updated, one could have said much the same about this as well. But it is hard to see, how a partially corrected reprint of a ten year old popular book with an out-of-date bibliography and index can justify its current retail price.