The shell of a bivalve is composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), and consists of two, usually similar, parts called valves. These are joined together along one edge (the hinge line) by a flexible ligament that, usually in conjunction with interlocking "teeth" on each of the valves, forms the hinge. This arrangement allows the shell to be opened and closed without the two halves becoming disarticulated. The shell is typically bilaterally symmetrical, with the hinge lying in the sagittal plane. Adult shell sizes of bivalves vary from fractions of a millimeter to over a meter in length, but the majority of species do not exceed 10 cm (4 in).
Bivalves have long been a part of the diet of coastal human populations. Pearl oysters (the common name of two very different families in salt water and fresh water) are the most common source of natural pearls. The shells of bivalves are used in craftwork, and the manufacture of jewellery and buttons. Bivalves have also been used in the biocontrol of pollution.
Bivalves appear in the fossil record first in the early Cambrian more than 500 million years ago. The total number of living species is about 9,200. These species are placed within 1,260 genera and 106 families. Marine bivalves (including brackish water and estuarine species) represent about 8,000 species, combined in four subclasses and 99 families with 1,100 genera. The largest recent marine families are the Veneridae, with more than 680 species and the Tellinidae and Lucinidae, each with over 500 species. The freshwater bivalves include seven families, the largest of which are the Unionidae, with about 700 species.