Monday, 6 August 2012

Shelling Out

H G Adams - Beautiful Shells - 1855
                        When it comes to enticements to potential neophytes in a field of scientific study, there cannot be many that are as brazenly unenthusiastic as George Johnston’s preamble in his 1850 oeuvre An Introduction to Conchology or, Elements of The Natural History of Molluscous Animals, which states: - 
“There are not many inducements to become a Conchologist: his pursuit has always been deemed one of an inferior character, and the fame of none of its masters has ever extended beyond the narrow pale of his fellow co-operators, excepting when, in one or two instances, the witty pen of the satirist has momentarily fixed the public eye upon this obscure object of its ridicule.” 

H G Adams - Beautiful Shells - 1855

If that doesn’t put you off reading more, nothing will. And it would be a shame if you let it, as the study of shells is one of the most fascinating, rewarding and pleasurable disciplines in the whole of natural history, (although I sense Johnston’s tongue was firmly in his cheek). There are few areas where the objects of study leave behind evidence of their existence after their death – animals, birds, fish, flowers and so on all eventually disappear, leaving little of their remains behind. There are fossils of course, but these can be difficult to find and depend largely on where you happen to live, and there are other vestiges like moulted feathers to be gathered up, but these are not like the entirety of the host creatures. 

Thomas Brown - Illustrations of the Conchology of Great Britain and Ireland - 1837

We may photograph them, but this can be awkward and expensive, and requires quite some expertise to be done properly. We frown, rightly, at taking specimens from the wild, as this diminishes the living population, but shells can be picked up long after their original owners have passed away, with no effect on the remaining stock. When I was a boy, it was quite normal to pick and press flowers, net butterflies or take birds’ eggs, indeed it was almost the expected thing for little boys to do as a hobby, but thankfully it’s gone by the board, and there are laws and protection in place. 

Lovell Reeve - Conchologia Systematica - 1841

And although some, say, tropical marine species are stunningly beautiful, specimens from our own waters have charms of their own, and can, in their own way, be just as pleasing to behold. Similarly, the shell of a land snail picked up in your own back garden can have the same complexity, colours and interest as anything found in the depths of an Amazonian rain forest. 

William Swainson - Exotic Conchology - 1821

A walk in our own fields and woods, or a stroll along our seashore, can deliver as varied and beautiful finds as anywhere in the world – we have cone shells and conches, oysters and cowries aplenty. Then again, foreign imports of exotics can be picked up for pennies rather than pounds (and I know there are exceptions, but generally speaking – I’ve bought large conches for a couple of quid, but also had decent bags of mixed shells for the same amount, and providing that they are not taken from live animals but are collected later and this done properly, there is little to complain about). 

E Donovan - The Natural History of British Shells - 1800

Conchology is also a very valuable tool in teaching and learning, as students young and old can gain hands-on experience and practical skills in the practice of taxonomy – the classification and organisation of specimens within their group. This is a valuable cross-over skill that can then be applied in other areas, and is also useful for gaining an appreciation of the inter-connectedness found in nature – after all, every living creature is related to every other living creature on the planet if you can trace the family tree back far enough. 

William Swainson - Exotic Conchology - 1821

Speaking of taxonomy, the mnemonic ‘Dumb Kids Playing Catch On Freeways Get Smashed’ is a handy way of remembering the sequence of ‘Domain Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species’; (and ‘My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets’ will give you the order of the planets from the Sun outwards – ‘Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto’ (I know, I know – just leave it)). 

G  B Sowerby - Popular British Conchology - 1854

Just as interesting, to my mind at least, are some of the classic works on conchology from the past – particularly some of the marvellous illustrations from Victorian text-books. It’s a pity that some print dealers will buy copies of these to break up and sell the pages individually, to be framed and hung on the wall. The pictures in this post are all taken from works on conchology from the nineteenth century and the majority can be found by poking about online. It’s easier, and cheaper, to find a decent scan on tinternet and print off your own version, if you want a picture for your wall. And of course, you don’t have to stick to shells – there are plants, flowers, birds, butterflies and almost every other creature you can think of out there.

E Mendes da Costa - Historia Naturalis Testaceorum Britanniae - 1778

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