If you are fascinated
by the beauty and detail of
seashells, overwhelmed by
seashell diversity and
simply cannot walk
down a beach without
collecting a few seashells,
it may just be that you
are a conchologist at heart.
Of course, not all shell collectors are technically conchologists.
A serious conchologist would debate that you must have the proper
motivation in your collection of seashells (such as an interest in the
visual study of the systems, patterns and natural history of the seashell)
in order to be considered a conchologist.
And, the professional scientist who studies
the actual creature inside the shell is a malacologist.
But, why argue the details.
Since the beginning of time, people have collected seashells.
There is even a “club” to join: the Conchologists of America
(known as COA) is a society for sea shell collecting enthusiasts
from all walks of life! They have an annual convention and give grants;
their website discusses the discovery of new species and a Kids' section.
Seashells (those pretty baubles scattered on the beach)
are more than just eye candy for the conchologist!
But, where do seashells come from?
What are they? What purpose do seashells serve?
Seashells are the exterior skeletons
or hard outer bodies of the mollusk
(or "soft-bodied" animals). This exterior
skeleton provides the animal with
shape and rigidity, camouflage and
protection from predators and the
environment. These marine mollusks
themselves are a diverse bunch! Some
are carnivores, some strict vegetarians,
others are scavengers, parasites or
predators. They may burrow, creep, tunnel,
float or swim and they live in the mud, sand,
silt, coral, rocks, tide pools or grasses.
Mollusks make their shells from calcium.
The hatching mollusk comes into
the world with a tiny shell. This shell
is a part of the animal and grows with it.
As time passes, each marine mollusk’s shell becomes slightly unique
to it alone. Differences develop due to its heredity, food, climate,
environment and lifetime accidents. You can learn a lot about
a mollusk by studying his shell.
Perhaps there are healed-over breaks and chips which speak
of a battle with a predator. Or color changes which indicate
changes in diet or water chemicals. A thick or dull-colored shell
indicates the mollusk is old. Spiny shells which are worn smooth
indicate the mollusk lived in rough water; whereas,
extravagant spiny extensions could mean its home was in quiet water.
Sometimes, the shell becomes so encrusted with marine organisms
that the mollusk no longer can maneuver and will starve to death.
It is important to
remember that the shell
grown by the mollusk
is a part of the animal
and is alive.
The collecting of seashells
should be done with
to this fact.
If the seashell is still a part
of a living mollusk,
it would be
just plain rude to pick him up
and put him in your bucket!
So, now you know!
You are not just a shell collector or “beachcomber.”
You just may be an amateur conchologist.
And, if your collection is over-whelming you,
remember the local seashell museum is soon to open
and is searching for unique seashells!