Much of the current knowledge concerning bivalve immunology and immunotoxicology has come from studies on the mussel genus, Mytilus, or from the American oyster, Crassostrea virginica. Following a major oil spill, it was observed that the marine mussel, Mytilus edulis, underwent significant immunosuppression but no oil-induced mortalities, while in contrast, mass mortalities were noted in the edible cockle, Cerastoderma edule, and the razor-shell, Ensis siliqua. A study comparing immune cells and functions in these three species was initiated (i) to assess whether M. edulis was a representative model species and (ii) to provide baseline data on immunity in two common species, which had previously received little or no attention in this respect. While all three species shared similar cell types, their lectin-binding and enzyme cytochemistry differed considerably. M. edulis had significantly different proportions of haemocytes binding with the lectins concanavalin A, wheatgerm agglutinin and Helix pomatia agglutinin and stained positive for eight enzymes, compared with only five in C. edule and three in E. siliqua. In terms of immune function, M. edulis haemocytes were much more active in phagocytosis and superoxide generation than haemocytes of the other two species. The results show that immune cells and functions differed extensively in these three closely related species, with M. edulis showing a much higher level of immunological vigour that may be linked to its considerable resilience to adverse environmental conditions. This suggests that M. edulis may not be particularly representative of the bivalves in terms of immune reactivity and that a wider range of species should be included in studies of molluscan immunotoxicology. © 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.