The class Gastropoda contains a vast total of named species, second only to the insects in overall number. The fossil history of this class goes back to the Late Cambrian. As of 2017, 721 families of gastropods are known, of which 245 are extinct and appear only in the fossil record, while 476 are currently extantwith or without a fossil record.
Gastropoda (previously known as univalves and sometimes spelled "Gasteropoda") are a major part of the phylum Mollusca, and are the most highly diversified class in the phylum, with 65,000 to 80,000 living snail and slug species. The anatomy, behavior, feeding, and reproductive adaptations of gastropods vary significantly from one clade or group to another. Therefore, it is difficult to state many generalities for all gastropods.
The class Gastropoda has an extraordinary diversification of habitats. Representatives live in gardens, woodland, deserts, and on mountains; in small ditches, great rivers and lakes; in estuaries, mudflats, the rocky intertidal, the sandy subtidal, in the abyssal depths of the oceans including the hydrothermal vents, and numerous other ecological niches, including parasitic ones.
Although the name "snail" can be, and often is, applied to all the members of this class, commonly this word means only those species with an external shell big enough that the soft parts can withdraw completely into it. Those gastropods without a shell, and those with only a very reduced or internal shell, are usually known as slugs; those with a shell into which they cannot withdraw are termed limpets.
The marine shelled species of gastropod include species such as abalone, conches, periwinkles, whelks, and numerous other sea snails that produce seashells that are coiled in the adult stage—though in some, the coiling may not be very visible, for example in cowries. In a number of families of species, such as all the various limpets, the shell is coiled only in the larval stage, and is a simple conical structure after that.
In the scientific literature, gastropods were described under "gasteropodes" by Georges Cuvier in 1795. Cuvier chose "gastropod" by derivation from the Ancient Greek words γαστήρ (gastér) "stomach", and ποδὸς (podòs) "foot".
The earlier name univalve means "one valve" or shell, in contrast to bivalve applied to mollusks such as clams and meaning that those animals possess two valves or shells.