Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My Mollusks

I have been collecting marine mollusks since I was about nine. I'd always had a few around, as curiosities and from trips to the beach, but when I was nine, it dawned on me one day that all of them had names. For some reason, this fact kindled within me an insatiable curiosity to know as much as I could about mollusks, and I began collecting them avidly.

When I started out, I would line my shells up inside cardboard boxes and trays, with labels glued beside them. Today, I have the tiny ones stored inside little spice jars, tooth-floss containers, computer cartridge boxes, and film cannisters (remember those things?), and most of the larger ones wrapped in quilt batting and packed away. My smallest is a few millimeters long, and the largest is bigger than my head. Someday I would love to keep the largest ones in a curio cabinet, or the entire lot in a cabinet of drawers, like museums have. I also developed a slightly better labeling system, and a catalogue somewhere on my hard-drive.

Since I prefer finding them to buying them, and don't visit the Atlantic Ocean regularly, I only have about two hundred different species (but probably over a thousand specimens). I have found specimens of a majority of the species native to the coast of North Carolina.

Several years ago when I got a camera, I decided to take pictures of my entire collection. I'm going to have to redo some of them, one of these days, now that I'm more used to how the camera works. Here are a few of the pictures (links to the album at the end of this post). I could talk for hours about my collection, and mollusks in general, so it's going to take a great deal of effort to keep this pleasantly brief.

Cyrtopleura costata (Linnaeus, 1752)
10.2 cm
Anastasia Island, FL (also native to NC)
29 December 2004
The common name of this shell is pretty obvious. These aren't matching valves. They are some of my most fragile shells. I've read that if you dig up a live one, it will clench itself together in fright and shatter. I wonder if that's so.Martesia cuneiformis (Say, 1822)
Wedge-shaped Piddock
Topsail Island, NC
December 1999
This one, in the same family as the angel wing, fascinates me, because I had it for years and never knew it. I had brought home a tiny piece of driftwood from the beach, and one day noticed a bit of something embedded in it. I quickly realized it was the shell of a little clam, and spent several hours carefully excavating it with a pin and a pair of tweezers. For this picture, I slid it back into the cavity so you could see. It's a boring-clam, the same relative shape and size as a pistachio. Hordes of these things can wreak havoc on docks, piers, ships, and anything else wooden that's in the water-- pretty much the maritime equivalent of termites. They chew with their tiny mouth-parts. Isn't that fascinating?Atrina rigida (Lightfoot, 1786)
Stiff Pen Shell
17.2 cm
Southport, NC
27 May 2003
I have both valves of this shell, but here's the inside of just one. Isn't that lovely? The little circles are the leftover bits of barnacles which encrusted it. This is a very brittle shell. It anchors itself to something in its habitat with "roots" known as byssal threads. The threads of some species can be collected and woven into a very fine silky gold cloth. Some suggest that the golden fleece of Greek mythology might have actually been a cloth of byssal threads.Diodora cayennensis (Lamarck, 1822)
Cayenne Keyhole Limpet
Emerald Island, NC
Keyhole limpets suction themselves to hard surfaces and creep about eating algae and detritus. All keyhole limpets have a little hole like that in the top, unlike true limpets which are just cones with no holes (saith the Peterson Field Guide).Oliva sayana Ravenel, 1834
Lettered Olive
4 cm
Fort Macon, NC
27 December 2001
These are fairly common in NC, but this is the only specimen I've ever found on which the markings and coloring are of such high quality. The inside is a delicate lavender color, and the outside is clearly marked with the "letters" that give this shell its common name. Usually, olives are discolored pink, white, or black.Epitonium krebsii (Mörch, 1874)
Krebs' Wentletrap
.3 cm
Anastasia Island, FL
29 December 2004
This is one of my tiniest shells, only three millimeters long. This picture was zoomed in so you could see the delicate details on it. Wentletraps are some of my favorites; the funny name is actually derived from the Dutch word for "staircase," if I understand correctly, on account of its ribbed spiral shape (had to double-check that on Wiki; it's been a while). It reminds me of a donut of some sort; there's another wentletrap native to the Atlantic that really looks like something to eat.Here are links to the albums. Let me know if they don't work.
Gastropod Album I
Gastropod Album II
Bivalve Album I
Bivalve Album II
Oh! I didn't mention, for anyone who didn't guess already, that gastropods are essentially snails ("stomach-foot") and can also be known as univalves, and bivalves are essentially clams ("two parts") and can also be know as pelcyopods ("ax-foot"). I have a list of good field guides and things like that, if anyone is interested, and I love identifying shells, for anyone who's curious about one. It would be amazing to be curator of a museum's mollusk collection.

I have several other collections (including Upper Devonian fossils), but not as extensive as this one-- but that's for another time. ^_^


  1. A beautiful collection. You did not mention how tasty some, maybe not all, of these are - especially the large snails. I love raw conch salad!

  2. I was going to mention how good they taste! But I forgot. I've only ever had scallops, which were good hot with butter and lemon. That was a long time ago, though.

  3. I wish we had oceans here to collect shells! When I was younger I remember I was interested in them, but I never had the ability to learn anything by collection because the only shells we have here are clams and they're not altogether pretty (though I do have some, they're all the same as each other).

    Those are really amazing...

  4. My Mollusks -- a folder on your Windows Life System.