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The molluscs or mollusks /ˈmɒləsks/ compose the large phylum of invertebrate animals known as the Mollusca. Around 85,000 extant species of molluscs are recognized. Molluscs are the largest marine phylum, comprising about 23% of all the named marine organisms. Numerous molluscs also live in freshwater and terrestrial habitats. They are highly diverse, not just in size and in anatomical structure, but also in behaviour and in habitat. The phylum is typically divided into 9 or 10 taxonomic classes, of which two are entirely extinct. Cephalopod molluscs, such as squid, cuttlefish and octopus, are among the most neurologically advanced of all invertebrates—and either the giant squid or the colossal squid is the largest known invertebrate species. The gastropods (snails and slugs) are by far the most numerous molluscs in terms of classified species, and account for 80% of the total. The scientific study of molluscs is called malacology.

The three most universal features defining modern molluscs are a mantle with a significant cavity used for breathing and excretion, the presence of a radula, and the structure of the nervous system. Other than these things, molluscs express great morphological diversity, so many textbooks base their descriptions on a "hypothetical ancestral mollusc" (see image below). This has a single, "limpet-like" shell on top, which is made of proteins and chitin reinforced with calcium carbonate, and is secreted by a mantle covering the whole upper surface. The underside of the animal consists of a single muscular "foot". Although molluscs are coelomates, the coelom tends to be small, and the main body cavity is a hemocoel through which blood circulates; their circulatory systems are mainly open. The "generalized" mollusc's feeding system consists of a rasping "tongue", the radula, and a complex digestive system in which exuded mucus and microscopic, muscle-powered "hairs" called cilia play various important roles. The generalized mollusc has two paired nerve cords, or three in bivalves. The brain, in species that have one, encircles the esophagus. Most molluscs have eyes, and all have sensors to detect chemicals, vibrations, and touch. The simplest type of molluscan reproductive system relies on external fertilization, but more complex variations occur. All produce eggs, from which may emerge trochophore larvae, more complex veliger larvae, or miniature adults.

A striking feature of molluscs is the use of the same organ for multiple functions. For example, the heart and nephridia ("kidneys") are important parts of the reproductive system, as well as the circulatory and excretory systems; in bivalves, the gills both "breathe" and produce a water current in the mantle cavity, which is important for excretion and reproduction. In reproduction, molluscs may change gender to accommodate the other breeding partner.

Good evidence exists for the appearance of gastropods, cephalopods and bivalves in the Cambrian period 541 to 485.4 million years ago. However, the evolutionary history both of molluscs' emergence from the ancestral Lophotrochozoa and of their diversification into the well-known living and fossil forms are still subjects of vigorous debate among scientists.

Molluscs have been and still are an important food source for anatomically modern humans, but with a risk of food poisoning from toxins that accumulate in molluscs under certain conditions, and many countries have regulations to reduce this risk. Molluscs have, for centuries, also been the source of important luxury goods, notably pearls, mother of pearl, Tyrian purple dye, and sea silk. Their shells have also been used as money in some preindustrial societies.

Mollusc species can also represent hazards or pests for human activities. The bite of the blue-ringed octopus is often fatal, and that of Octopus apollyon causes inflammation that can last for over a month. Stings from a few species of large tropical cone shells can also kill, but their sophisticated, though easily produced, venoms have become important tools in neurological research. Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia, bilharziosis or snail fever) is transmitted to humans via water snail hosts, and affects about 200 million people. Snails and slugs can also be serious agricultural pests, and accidental or deliberate introduction of some snail species into new environments has seriously damaged some ecosystems.



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