Fossil mollusc collection (Mollusca)

The collection of fossil molluscs at the Natural History Museum is among the world’s most systematically, stratigraphically and geographically comprehensive. It includes more than 20,000 type and figured specimens.

Most molluscs have calcareous shells with excellent preservation potential. As a consequence the mollusc collection is one of the largest in the Museum, with more than 5,000,000 specimens.

The collection is enhanced by two specialist reference libraries:

  •  Cox Library – benthic molluscs
  •  Buckman Library – cephalopods

Important indicators

Molluscs are abundant in a wide range of marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments and are second only to arthropods as the most species-rich animal phylum.

The fossil record reveals molluscs to have been systematically diverse and commonly occurring throughout much of their 530 million year history. For example ammonites, evolve particularly rapidly and can be used for correlating and dating rocks.

Many groups are also excellent indicators of past environmental conditions.

Details

Geological range:

Our collection contains specimens belonging to the seven shell-bearing molluscan classes from across their entire geological range:

  • Bivalvia (Early Cambrian to Recent)
  • Cephalopoda (Late Cambrian to Recent)
  • Gastropoda (Early Cambrian to Recent)
  • Monoplacophora (Early Cambrian to Recent)
  • Polyplacophora (Late Cambrian to Recent)
  • Rostroconchia (Early Cambrian to Permian)
  • Scaphopoda (Early Carboniferous to Recent)

The collections also include the following group of probable molluscan affinity:

  • Hyolitha (Early Cambrian to Permian)

and conical-shelled Problematica (fossils of uncertain affinity) such as:

  • Tentaculitida (Early Ordovician to Late Devonian)
  • Cornulitida (Middle Ordovician to Early Carboniferous)

Two living classes of worm-like molluscs, the 'aplacophoran' Solenogastres and Caudofoveata lack a shell or shell plates and have yet to be found as fossils.

Geographical Range

The collection has a worldwide scope including Antarctica and oceanic islands. In addition to extensive British holdings, Western European countries and former British colonies are particularly well represented. 

  • Historic collections containing fossil molluscs

    The Museum cares for many important collections linked to major characters in the history of palaeontology. Find out some of the highlights featuring fossil molluscs.

  • Research visitor facilities

    Discover what facilities and resources are available in the Palaeontology Department for research visitors to the benthic mollusc and minor group collections, or the cephalopod collection.

Collections management and curation

Arrangement:

The fossil mollusc collection comprises three major groups of material:

  1. Benthic molluscs, comprising the classes:
  • Bivalvia (mussels, clams)
  • Gastropoda (snails)
  1. Cephalopoda, a class comprising the subclasses:
  •  Ammonoidea (ammonites and relatives)
  •  Coleoidea (belemnites, cuttlefishes, octopuses, squids and paper nautiluses)
  •  Nautiloidea (nautiloids and their Palaeozoic relatives)
  1. Minor groups, consisting of the:      
  • Hyolitha
  • Monoplacophora
  • Polyplacophora (chitons)
  • Rostroconchia
  • Scaphopoda (tusk shells)
  • and the enigmatic Cornulitida and Tentaculitida

Most of these groups are arranged systematically using traditional or current classifications. The Bivalvia, Cephalopoda and Minor groups are arranged according to the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology.

In addition to the systematically arranged material we have the following collections:

  • Cenozoic and Quaternary non-marine molluscs: arranged by fauna and locality
  • Faunal assemblages and samples
  • Historic collections: by noted palaeontologists 
Storage:
  • Content is kept in drawer units.
  • Specimens are:
    • generally boxed
    • sometimes stored in tubes
  • Some older specimens are adhered to cards.
Labels:

Most of the collection is well provenanced:

  • For historic content the associated person is identified
  • Original labels are often retained with the specimens

Type specimens are indicated by red or green spots; benthic molluscs are in pink (type) or green (figured) boxes.

Location

The fossil mollusc collection is based across 3 locations in London:

  • Most is spread over 2 floors in the Palaeontology Department at South Kensington.  
  • A portion, principally assemblages and ex-display specimens, is kept in the store at Wandsworth.
  • Some specimens are on display at the Natural History Museum in the Earth Lab and in the Fossils from Britain gallery.

Find out more

Using palaeontology collections