A Natural History of Shells

Submitted by Steve Wilkinson on Mon, 10/05/2010 23:47

Geerat J Vermeij, 1993. Paperback edition 1995, Princeton University Press, pp 207 and 22 colour plates. ISBN 0-691-00167-7

Review source

Originally reviewed by David Long in 1995.

Published in Journal of Conchology (1995), Vol.35

As this fascinating book received excellent reviews when first published in 1993 the aim of this review is to draw attention to its availability as a paperback. Its treatment of shells is based on 3 questions by the molecular biologist, Sidney Brenner, as the author points out - "How does it work? How is it built? How did it evolve?" - so it has 3 parts: "The Rules of Shell Construction: Life in a Dangerous World," "How Shells Work"; and "The Dimension of Time".

The book begins by making shell geometry comprehensible, even to the mathematically blind like myself, though in Chapter 2 the reader sometimes has to remember that references to "shell" are to gastropods, and I think that the terms convex and concave are transposed in Figure 2.12. It concludes by discussing the economics of shell construction and maintenance.

In the second part, the chapter on shell mechanics explores the relationship between shell shape, the laws of physics, and the forces to which organisms are exposed and life on the upper shore, in waves and currents, as a swimmer or floater, and on sandy and muddy bottoms. This is followed by chapters on predators and their methods and on the shell as protection, all full of thought provoking and clearly explained points.

Finally, Professor Vermeij examines the dimension of time, beginning with how the changing geography and climate of the last 20 million years has affected the distribution of marine molluscs in tropical, temperate, and polar regions. In his last chapter, "Evolutionary Economics: the Rise and Fall of Adaptive Themes," he deals briefly with the history of life on earth, the evolution of predators on molluscs, the colonising of sediments and rocks by animals (especially molluscs) and molluscan responses to predation - and goes on to look at the economics of specialisation and the use of shells by organisms after the original builders have died. He ends by comparing the history of the biosphere - as a tale of the economics of resources which shows that economic growth is a rare and temporary conditions - with the human situation, and he points out the danger of reliance on high resource use because of the risk of interruption of supply.

This is a beautifully constructed book which deserves careful reading: thoroughly recommended, especially at the paperback price.