Have you ever left the beach with a serious haul of shells? After spending all morning combing the sand for treasures, you finally return home and spread your bounty across the floor or table and look at the beauty you’ve collected. There’s sand everywhere, you’re still dripping saltwater from your bathing suit, and the beach towels need washing – but it doesn’t matter, because you’re admiring these tiny, intricate works of art.
That’s how I feel about shells. I love them. You can ask P – our townhouse is full of vases, bowls, and jars of shells. I have shells that my grandmother collected, shells from summer vacations long past, shells from my mom, and one coveted sea heart (my cousin Travis has one too from the same summer). They all hold memories of wonderful days spent at the beach.
If you have a passion for beachcombing like me, you should invest in a good book to identify not only shells but other plants and animals that reside by the sea. The best book I have found so far is Florida’s Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber by Blair and Dawn Witherington. Blair is a research scientist with the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and his wife, Dawn, is a graphic design artist and scientific illustrator. Together with their love for natural Florida, the Witheringtons’ knowledge and skills make them the perfect couple to tackle the flora and fauna of our state’s coasts.
Florida’s Living Beaches is extremely thorough, covering everything from beach features, such as sandbars and currents, to animals, plants, minerals, and man-made beach junk. There are over 800 color photographs and easy-to-read descriptions to assist you in cataloging your treasures. The cover is also heavy-duty and laminated, so you can stash the book in your beach bag without worrying about water damage.
Here’s what JUP Mama and I found last Sunday at Carlin Park, identified using Florida’s Living Beaches (excerpts below):
Identifying Features: All olives have cylindrical, glossy shells with narrow, elongate apertures.
Shell lingo: APERTURE – the main opening of the shell, where the head-foot part of the animal emerges for locomotion and feeding.
Lettered olives have a thick shell with a small pointed spire about 1/9 total shell length. Unfaded shells are covered with overlapping, slightly blurry, brown zigzags that are darkest just below the suture and as part of two, broad, spiral bands.
Identifying Features: Scallops have round or oval shells with distinct ribs and winglike “ear” projections on either side of the umbo.
Shell lingo: UMBO – the most prominent, highest part of each valve of the shell of a bivalve.
Atlantic calico scallops have shells with 19-21 rounded ribs. Shell colors vary through white, yellow, orange, red, purple, and gray, generally with splotches of dark on light. Their ears are often worn.
Identifying Features: Bittersweet clams have heavy, rounded shells with thick, arching hinge-lines bearing several prominent teeth on either side of the umbo.
Spectral bittersweets have a slightly triangular or elliptical shell with a large umbo and 30-40 smooth ribs. They range from white to brown and frequently show varied radiating, sunburst streaks of white on chestnut, or vice versa.
Both Atlantic calico scallops and the spectral bittersweet clams are pretty common on the east coast of Florida. My mom and I call them “tourist” shells – shells you take home just because you want to prove you went to the beach on vacation. Although you can find them almost anywhere, each shell has its own unique coloring and pattern, making them a fun souvenir.
Identifying Features: All are white when bleached.
Thick finger coral (Porites porites) is 1 inch thick with lumpy ends.
Tube coral (Cladocora arbuscula) has thin branches ending in 1/8 inch cups.
Starlet coral (Siderastrea spp.) covers shells and rocks, feels like coarse sandpaper, and forms boulders in deep water. JUP Mama found this beauty – we’d never seen starlet coral before!
Identifying Features: These arcs have elongate, rectangular shells with long, straight, hinge-lines below a broad, triangular ligament area. They really do look like what they’re name after. I can just imagine this “wing” on Tom Turkey at Thanksgiving.
Turkey wings have shells with rough ribs. Turkey wing shells are striped by nested, red-brown V’s or W’s at the umbo that turn into oblique lines or zigzags rearward.
This is one of my favorite shells, one we like to call the “fried egg.” It’s actually a leafy jewelbox (don’t ask me where that name came from) but I’ll always think of it as my favorite breakfast food. P had never seen a “fried egg” before.
Identifying features: Leafy jewelboxes have thick, oval shell covered in numerous scaly ridges. Beach-worn shells are lumpy, but new shells may have long, hollow scales. They are generally yellow or chalky, but are often orange or lavender.
Seaglass is one of my most desired things to find at the beach, although it is becoming rarer and less colorful, mostly due to the decline of the use of glass bottles. According to Florida’s Living Beaches, seaglass colors from most to least common are brown, green, clear, light green, dark green, light blue, dark blue, yellow, and red.
JUP Mama spotted this two-faced little guy! One half is made of striped acorn barnacles and the other half appears to be made of variable worm shells.
Striped acorn barnacles are conical with purple stripes on their distinct plates. Worm shells are snails that grow in irregular patterns. Variable worm shells have an aperture to 1/16 of an inch and grow in compact, rock-like, colonies of tangled tubes. Chunks of colonies are orange, brownish-purple, or whitish.
Identifying Features: Common jingle shells have round, translucent shells with no clear umbo or hinge. Their colors include silver-gray, white, yellow, and orange. Black shells have been stained by sulfurous sediments.
Identifying Features: Incongruous arks are thin-shelled for an ark. Their strong radial ribs have distinct dash-shaped beads.
Identifying Features: Shark’s eyes have a gaping aperture and a large body whorl that forms a smooth dome with their low spire. The umbilicus is nearly covered by a brown, traguslike pad (callus).
Shell lingo: UMBILICUS – the axially aligned, hollow cone-shaped space within the whorls of a coiled mollusc shell. (I looked it up, it’s on the “backside” of the shell!)
Shark’s eyes are brown-gray, blue-gray, or faded. Unfaded shells have a blue “eye” in the early whorls. Shark’s eyes from the southern Gulf coast are browner with conelike spires and may be a distinct species.
It’s surprising the variety of shells JUP Mama and I were able to find in just a couple of hours on the beach. In my experience, the best way to find shells is to stand right where the tide breaks and scan the incoming and outgoing water. When you think you’ve spotted a treasure, be fast! Reach down into the sand and grab the shell before the outgoing tide sweeps it back to sea! I know this may not be the easiest method or the least humiliating (I definitely had one lady laughing at me while I yelled “THERE’S AN OLIVE!!!!” at the top of my lungs and was simultaneously smacked in the face with a wave) but it is certainly the most fun.
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