Molluscs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but some of the least known are perhaps the Aplacophora, or shell-less molluscs. Instead of a shell, these worm-shaped molluscs have a cuticle covered in calcareous spicules, or sclerites, that give them a beautiful, glistening appearance!
The very first species of aplacophoran mollusc, Chaetoderma nitidulum, was collected from the Swedish west coast and described by the Swedish taxonomist Sven Lovén in 1844. At the time, it was not even known what animal group the new, strange animal belonged to. It had spicules– could it be related to the spiny sea urchins? It had a worm-like body– could it be related to other worm-shaped animals? It would be almost 50 years before it was conclusively recognized as part of Mollusca. Since then, many more species have been discovered, and today close to 500 species of aplacophoran molluscs have been described.
Chaetoderma nitidulum is known today as one of the common aplacophoran molluscs in the East Atlantic, with a distribution from the Svalbard archipelago in the north, to the British Isles in the south. However, taxonomist have been debating the identity of Chaetoderma nitidulum since shortly after it was described. Some researchers have suggested that it could in fact consist of up to six different species. Other researchers have synonymized it with other species, or suggested that it is not a separate species, but only part of a larger species which has a distribution that spans the entire North Atlantic.
The shape, size and the patterns on the calcareous sclerites covering the body of the aplacophoran molluscs is unique to each species, making it one of the most important characters we have to distinguish between different species.
Looking at the sclerites through the microscope equipped with a cross-polarizing filter gives us a shiny, colorful view of the sclerites. The light shines with different colors depending on the thickness of the sclerites, helping us get a good view of the structure of the sclerites.
We have recently investigated specimens of Chaetoderma nitidulum from different localities from the entire distribution range of the species. Our investigations have revealed a lot of variation between the specimens, both in the calcareous sclerites and in DNA sequences, separating the specimens into at least two different groups. Could it be that Chaetoderma nitidulum actually represents more than one species?