A Molluscan History of Britain and Ireland

Warning, this one’s a long read! The received wisdom is that this is anathema to a modern reader but as the ents say…

I’ve been thinking a lot about maps recently. Specifically species distribution maps. Nowadays, at the click of a button you can bring up all kinds of mapped data that our predecessors would find nothing short of magical. Portals like GBIF, irecord (requires login) and NBN atlas represent some of the most impressive collaborative efforts to answer the simple biological question, where do you find different kinds of organisms. However number 1. They are incomplete. Many museum collections datasets are yet to be liberated, the literature needs to be endlessly combed through and I can only imagine the records and antiquated datasets that sit locked up in filing cabinets, on ageing PCs, floppy disks and yellowed print outs. However number 2. It will never be complete. Short of giving every blade of grass, tadpole, cormorant and hedgehog an GPS enabled anklet, our attempts are recording and documenting are ultimately in vain. There are vast swathes of organisms we don’t even know how to look for;- the tiny, cryptic, elusive, unloved and rare.

To me this is both humbling but also deeply worrying. How do we make any decisions about our interaction with the rest of organismal life if we don’t know all the facts? Human hubris in this area is also well documented. From disastrous deliberate introductions, accidental releases, biological control that goes wrong to the many, many ways in which organisms defy the rigid parameters we assume controls and restrains them, it would be fair to say our educated guesswork has been hit and miss to date. But a fear of the unknown has never been something to paralyse us for too long and this is where modelling and experimentation can incrementally fill in some of these gaps.

One thing that’s it’s taken me too long a time thinking about natural history to really appreciate is how, at least on land, our species has irrevocably interfered with (and not necessarily just ruined) everything, especially when it comes to Britain and Ireland. This (finally) brings me on to the molluscan history of Britain and Ireland, which is as much a geological and anthropological history as it is a molluscan one as I hope to elucidate below.

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