Molluscan deep-sea diversity

Deep sea trochid

A new species of deep-sea trochid

Principal Investigators

Project summary

  • Focus: Investigating mollusc adaptation and diversification in the deep sea


We are tracing the evolution and diversification of deep-sea molluscs and investigating how they adapt to their environment.

The deep sea was once thought to be devoid of life. Studies over the past 100 years, however, have shown there is a great diversity of life well adapted to the conditions of the deep.

Molluscs have not only survived in the deep sea, but have diversified and spread widely.

The deep marine environment is at risk from overexploitation and habitat destruction as a result of fishing and mining ventures. It is important to learn about the diversity and evolution of organisms in the deep before there is further destruction.

We are using molecular methods to build robust phylogenies of deep-sea molluscs to help answer some fundamental questions.

Research questions

  • How have eyes evolved in deep-sea gastropods?
  • Have changes to diet enabled shallow water lineages to invade the nutrient-poor deep sea?
  • Can complete mitochondrial genomes help resolve the phylogeny of deep-sea bivalves?
  • Has Antarctica acted as a source of diversity for deep-water communities elsewhere?
  • How has global climate change affected evolution on the continental slope?

Some deep-sea molluscs have developed novel diets. Some have become carnivorous while others survive by only eating wood.

Preliminary results

Our research so far has shown that Antarctic species samples represent a recent invasion. 

We also show that a global cooling around 33.7 million years ago created a great diversification among the deep-water solariellid gastropods. This appears to be a result of increased nutrients supplied to the ocean by changing erosion, ocean circulation, tectonic events and upwelling.

This suggests that food availability may have been a factor limiting the exploitation of deep-sea habitats.


Museum staff

  • Lisa Smith
  • Pat Dyal
  • Tim Littlewood
  • Peter Foster
  • Andrew Briscoe
  • Lisa Marie Braun, Imperial College London (MSc)
  • Chris Hughes, Imperial College London (MSc)

External collaborators

  • Philippe Bouchet
    Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, France
  • Anders Warén
    Swedish Museum of Natural History, Sweden
  • Dai Herbert
    KwaZulu-Natal Museum, South Africa
  • Yasunori Kano
    The University of Tokyo, Japan
  • Claude Vilvens
    Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, France
  • Elizabeth Harper
    University of Cambridge, UK
  • Lauren Sumner-Rooney
    Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland

Supported by

Biodiversity research

We are creating molecular and digital tools to explore undiscovered biodiversity

Invertebrate research

Our scientists are investigating the taxonomy, systematics and biodiversity of groups of invertebrates

Zoology collections

Our zoology collection has 29 million animal specimens and is rich in voucher, type and historical specimens