We support fundamental research in the field of systematics. These activities are the basis to understand species, their distribution in space and time, ecology, evolution and physiology of organisms.

Every statement in biology must be based on correct species identifications. Taxonomic work needs long-term experience, as well as specialist research infrastructure: specimen collections. The research activities in the Malacology Section focus on taxonomy, using one of the world’s largest and most important malacological collections. The Malacology Section contributes to the general research area Biodiversity and Systematics.

Several of our long term research projects highlight to the major strengths of the collection.


Evolution of morphological diversity

Perhaps the most notably unifying feature among all the classes of molluscs is their differentness. The ability of the molluscan body plan to take on new form and new niches is what sets molluscs apart among the animals. Arthropods have greater numbers, but no phylum has greater disparity than Mollusca. The path to our current understanding of molluscan evolution is littered with bizarre creatures that defy the ‘typical’ boundaries of their clades – bivalved gastropods, chitons with no foot, vermiform bivalves, cephalopods and snails with dermal sclerites, and the relentless repeated evolution of both shell loss and supplementary armour. While such creatures are usually individually dismissed as one-off weirdoes, in fact they show us the absolute power of molluscs to test the limits of animal evolution. Recently derived living species with mosaic features defy our assumptions about the polarity of key morphological characters. Such innovations and recombinations have been a persistent feature of molluscan evolution for over 540 million years. The main focus of research by our group is to gain a comprehensive understanding of molluscan phylogeny through genomics, 3D tomographic reconstructions of anatomy, with living and fossil species. Our goal is a framework that not only accommodates, but also celebrates molluscan weirdness.

For more information, contact Julia Sigwart

Marine Malacology

Taxonomy and biodiversity of marine molluscs of the Arabian Seas

The Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Persian Gulf and Soqotra Island each differ significantly in the diversity of their mollusc faunas, even with respect to species composition. Based on clarified taxonomy these differences shall be explained in their ecological, oceanographical and biogeographical contexts. Work is based on comprehensive materials collected by German research vessels (Sonne, Valdivia, Meteor) from the deep Red Sea and Gulf of Aden as well as own collections from shallower environments in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and of Soquotra Island.
In cooperation with M. Zuschin (Vienna) currently shallow water gastropods from Egypt are worked up taxonomically and actuo-paleontologically. Work is in progress on the Pectinidae of the deep Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (with H. Dijkstra, Amsterdam). In the frame of an Arabian-German cooperation project “Red Sea Biodiversity Survey” since 2011 several expeditions have supplied rich materials. For an international book project the “Physical and biological constraints on the deep sea benthic molluscs” of the Red Sea will be described (with M. Taviani, Bologna). Furthermore a large collection from Soqotra Island is under scrutiny.

For more information, contact Ronald Janssen

Deepwater molluscs, in particular those of chemosynthetic habitats

Since its discovery in the 1960s chemosynthetic communities are in the particular focus of marine research. Material collected by various German expeditions is deposited and worked up in the Senckenberg Research Institute. Several new species of bivalves of the families Mytilidae and Vesicomyidae have already been described (e.g. Cosel & Janssen 2008, Krylova & Janssen 2007). As new material arrives further studies will follow.

For more information, contact Ronald Janssen

Historical collections of marine organisms

– a window into the beginnings of Global Change in the North and Baltic Seas.

In the frame of the project MARSAMM, supported by BMBF, currently the holdings of molluscs from the North and Baltic Seas are worked up and entered in the resp. database. The focus is on the exhaustive ethanol preserved material collected by research cruises into the area. The cruises were conducted on a regular basis since the 1970ies by Prof. M. Türkay.

MARSAMM website and database

Terrestrial Malacology

Taxonomy and evolution of the Clausiliidae

The door snails (Clausiliidae) are one of the best-known families of pulmonate land snails. They are relatively frequent in natural biotopes (wood and rocky areas) and are available for examination in collections by a high number of samples and individuals. The clausiliid collection of the Senckenberg Forschungsinstitut and Naturmuseum Frankfurt is one of the most important in the world; because of its wealth of types it is an unique comparison collection. 
The clausiliids are rich in morphological characters, in those of the shell, because they have a complex closing apparatus, and those of the genitalia, because they are simultaneous hermaphrodites. They exhibit a high diversity on species level (about 1300 living species known) as well as on higher taxonomic level (currently 10 subfamilies).
The research concerns extant European and extra-European groups (East Asia, South America) and fossil groups.
In the extant European groups diversity and evolution of the groups are in the focus of investigation. Of special interest are the groups of South Europe, rock-dwelling snails, which exhibit a high diversity on species level. This diversity is increased once more in certain groups by alternative types of closing apparatus, different coiling of the shell and interspecific hybridization.
In the extra-European groups the taxonomic work is still in the foreground. It is of special importance for conservation planning because many species are characteristic for natural biotopes.
In the fossil clausiliids, which occur mainly in the Tertiary and Quaternary, the shell rich in characters makes possible a certain classification of the species within higher taxonomic units. In general the species have a great biostratigraphical importance. From faunal changes of fossil clausiliids climate changes can be inferred. By an analysis of their characters the judgement on the character states (plesio/apomorphic) of extant groups can be tested.

The diversity of freshwater mussels in Nepal

Freshwater mussels are an important but often overlooked and little known part of the fauna of standing and flowing waters on all continents (except Antarctica). As “living sewage treatment plants” (filterers) and “biotope engineers” (digging locomotion) they improve the quality and diversity of their habitat. The largest number of species is found in South, Southeast and East Asia (320) and North America (302). In comparison, the 34 species of the Palaearctic (8 in Germany, including one invasive species) are only a rather insignificant part of a group of almost 1,000 species. While their species diversity has been intensively researched in North America for over 30 years using modern and standardised methods, it is only in the recent past that similar studies in the other diversity hot spots of biodiversity have begun. South Asia (India and neighbouring countries) is still largely unknown in this respect. Although there is no lack of species names and descriptions here either, it is unclear which of the numerous taxa are to be considered biological species, and whether various (cryptic) species are hidden under a known form.
In the malacological collection of the Senckenberg Research Institute there is suitable material to gain a first insight. This material was collected in Nepal in 2014 during a private research trip supported by the University of Kathmandu and handed over to the Research Institute. Molecular-genetic, anatomical and morphological analyses are planned to provide an insight into the diversity of freshwater mussels in central Nepal and thus into part of the fauna of the Ganges catchment area.

Project partners:

  • Malacology Section of the Department of Marine Zoology, Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt/M.
  • Working Group Molecular Ecology of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center, Frankfurt/M.
  • Laboratory for Molecular Ecology & Phylogenetics, Northern Arctic Federal University, Arkhangelsk, Russia.

For more information, contact Karl-Otto Nagel

Digitalisation and taxonomic revision of the Unionida (Mollusca: Bivalvia) collection

The collection of large freshwater mussels (river mussels, order Unionida) has been digitised and completely revised through projects funded by the German Research Foundation (2012- 2015 and 2022- 2024) and the Erika-und-Walter-Datz Foundation (2019).

The river mussel collection of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum Frankfurt is one of the most important of its kind in the world. It comprises (as of 2024) approx. 20,500 series (lots), each series ranging from one to (exceptionally) 250 shells. We estimate the total number of individual specimens to be around 80,000.

The collection contains, among other things, very comprehensive holdings of European species from almost all water systems dating back to the first half of the 19th century, as well as extensive type and specimen material from all continents. This makes the collection an internationally sought-after research tool and an invaluable data archive. In addition to the specimens from the Palaearctic region, which is traditionally the most extensive part of the collection, the specimens from South America (Hermann von Ihering collection) and South East Asia (Rolf A.M. Brandt collection) are particularly important.

These focal areas are also reflected in the geographical distribution of the type material, as the following list of the number of type series, including paralecto- and paratypes, by major region shows.

  • North Eurasia:              498
  • East Asia:                       77
  • Australasia:                      3
  • Afrotropics:                    62
  • North America:              21
  • Central America:            14
  • South America:            117

All parts of the collection are accessible via the Internet in the object database AQUiLA. This makes it possible to use them for a variety of questions (changes of species ranges, modern revision of taxonomy, etc.).

  • We look forward to hearing how you use the collection for your research.

For more information, contact Karl-Otto Nagel

Tertiary Molluscs

Oligocene and Miocene molluscs of the North Sea Basin

Besides taxonomic work on selected genera the mollusc fauna of the Oligocene and Miocene of the North Sea Basin is worked up. This is mainly done in the form of critical taxonomic revisory catalogues in order to supply a basis for further work such as e.g. biostratigraphical applications. This work is based on the comprehensive evaluation of all relevant literature, large collections, and the examination and photographic documentation of available type material. Currently the revisions of late Oligocene Pyramidellidae and Pectinidae as well as of Miocene Turridae are a prioritary. A revision of the Early Miocene fauna of  Klintinghoved (Denmark) is going on in cooperation with Danish colleagues.

For more information, contact Ronald Janssen

Taxonomy, evolution and biostratigraphy of marine molluscs from the European Tertiary

Molluscs still play an important role in regional biostratigraphy and reconstruction of paleogeographic relations of Tertiary basins. However, knowledge of these faunas is often based on outdated monographs and the uncritical use of traditional identifications. Also evolutionary relations of many species have not yet been examined. It is evident that many identifications and conclusions as to stratigraphical and geographical distributions drawn from these identifications do not stand up to a critical revision. The treatment of such material usually focusses on local faunas or selected horizons. Instead, a taxonomic treatment of systematic entities across regional and stratigraphical boundaries will open new perspectives on systematic and evolutionary relationships as well as on stratigrapical ranges and geographical distributions. In particular cases even relationships to extant species from the European or West African regions may show up. Comparisons of fossil and recent distribution patterns allow conclusions about temperature tolerance and climatically induced range shifts. For this kind of analysis comprehensive comparative material from all Tertiary basins as well as recent samples are needed. By its nature this research topic dealing with regionally and stratigraphically different and diverse faunas is very time consuming and can only be carried on as a long-term project. At present Vetigastropoda, Turridae and taxodont bivalves are of main interest. 

For more information, contact Ronald Janssen