Despite the highly diverse forms of the members of this taxon, molluscs share a recognizable and characteristic generalized general body plan, made up of a head, a foot, and viscera contained in a central body. They are generally considered unsegmented, although primitive forms (aplacophorans and polyplacophorans) with repeated body features show intriguing potential for a possibly segmented mollusc-annelid ancestor (e.g. Jacobs et al 2000).
The mollusc head can house various combinations of sensory structures: tentacles, photoreceptors, statocysts, chemoreceptors. In some molluscs these sensory systems can be very well developed (the complex cephalopod eye is a prime example). Also found on the head is a feature unique to molluscs: the radula. Found in the bucal (mouth) cavity, the radula usually exists as a tongue-like plate covered with “teeth” used by herbivores, carnivores and scavengers to scrape food particles into the mouth. Depending on diet and use, tooth number, shape, arrangement, makeup, and growth have adapted diversely. Especially in the gastropods, number and shape of radular teeth are important taxonomic characters. The radula has also been adapted for diverse feeding methods. Some gastropods and cephalopods have a drill-like radula used to bore holes in the shell of prey, sometimes with the aid of acids secreted from an adjacent boring gland. In cone snails the radula is set on the end of a retractable proboscis and is slung out like a harpoon, to inject toxins into the prey, delivered through piercing, hollow teeth. In some cases these toxins are powerful neurotoxins, deathly to humans. Several lineages of molluscs have evolved suspension feeding, especially in the gastropods and bivalves. The radula in these cases is either highly reduced or lost altogether, and in most cases food particles are caught by ctinidia (gills) and moved to the mouth by cilia.
Except for the aplacophorans, most molluscs have a well-developed, muscular foot. This structure is used in a multitude of ways, for example: locomotion, clinging to surfaces, burrowing, anchoring in sediment, swimming, modified into prehensile tentacles (octopus); the vast diversity of foot adaptations exemplifies the huge morphological diversity of the mollusc form.
A layer of epidermal tissue called the mantle surrounds the body of molluscs. Specialized glands in the mantle are responsible for the extracellular excretions that form shell structures. The ancestral mollusc is thought to have one shell capped over the body like a limpet, and from that a diverse number of shell arrangements have evolved. Molluscs may have have one, two, or eight (in chitons) shells. Aplacophorans have no shell, but have instead minute aragonite spicules imbedded within the mantle. Secondary loss or much reduced shell vestiges have also occurred independently in multiple mollusc lineages (for example nudibranchs, slugs, cephalopods). Shells usually provide external protection, but there have been several independent internalizations within cephalopods and opisthobranchia. In all molluscan groups the shell is produced in layers of (usually) calcium carbonate, either in calcite or aragonite form. The wide range of pigmentation, shape, size, sculpturing, and twisting of sea shells is, of course, well known. There is much recent developmental work describing gene expression in shell formation, and the roles of highly conserved regulatory genes such as engrailed and Hox genes have been examined (e.g. Jacobs et al 2000, Samadi and Steiner 2009).
Between the mantle and the body proper is the mantle cavity, which may be organized as one or two separate spaces or grooves. Many important functions occur in the mantle cavity: the ctenidia (gills) are positioned here and the body systems, namely the nephridia (kidney like organs), the gut and the reproductive organs open up into this space. In aquatic molluscs cilia on the surface of the mantle and organs maintain water flow through the mantle cavity to take away wastes and bring in oxygenated water (and food particles for those suspension feeding molluscs). Molluscs have an open circulatory system with a full heart (with the exception of the cephalopods, which have a closed circulatory system). Their nervous system is well developed, usually consisting of a dorsal ganglion, a ring of nerves around the esophagus, and two pairs of lateral nerve cords running the length of the body, which are connected transversely in a ladder-like arrangement. There is an enormous range of nervous system development in the molluscs, from the poorly developed ganglia of the aplacophorans to the extreme cephalization of the cephalopods. Two molluscan experimental study systems Loligo (octopus) and Aplesia (opistobranchia) have contributed much to the fields of neurological physiology.