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Shell collecting as a hobby
Life in the sea produces what we know as shells
Everyone who has walked on a beach has probably seen a shell or at the very least a part of a shell lying on the sand. If you have explored the tidal pools at low tide, snorkelled or scuba dived in the ocean you would have seen “live” shells or mollusc. The mollusc is the living animal and its protective covering. When the organism in the covering dies it now becomes the shell that we find washed up on the beach. These live animals stick to rocks or plants and move along the bottom of the ocean either on or in the sand. They started life as part of the many living organisms in the water called plankton. As they develope and grow they build a protective shell to live in. When the live animal in its protective cover dies the shell is washed up onto the shore. Unlike Crayfish and Grasshoppers that shed their covering as they grow these organisms grow with their outer layer. The Hermit Crab selects a new shell to live in as it grows and so does not fit into this family
It is interesting that most families of shells, as they grow, grow in a clockwise direction. You are very lucky as a shell collector if you find one of these that have reversed this typical growth pattern. There are estimated to be over 100 000 different kinds of shells in the world. They vary from tiny shells to huge specimens. Some need a micro-scope to view their intricate patterns and colours while other are big and heavy and can be used as doorstops.
Becoming a shell collector.
You became a shell collector when you picked up that first couple of shells on the beach and stored them in a bottle or on a shelf in your house. Serious collectors however are a different kettle of fish. They can be classified into two main classes; either the so called Conchologists who is a serious collector. Secondly the more casual collector known as a Fossickers. The serious collectors find mollusc in the sand or water and then clean out the animal in order to have the shell. The more casual fossicker walks along the beach and picks up interesting and new shells to display in their collection. They share a love for these beautiful, colourful objects known as shells, but approach their hobby at different levels.
South African shells.
In South Africa there is a large selection of different shells to collect along it’s about 3000 km. of coastline. It enjoys varied types of water and coastal characteristics along the shore that result in different shells living in different habitats. These include the cold water off the west coast, the warm water on the east coast, lagoons and estuaries, mangrove swamps and sandy or rocky coasts. There are also many fresh water molluscs and so you could find an interesting shell in a lake or river.
In South Africa there are restrictions as to what, where and how many shells you can collect. The Post Office sells a licence that allows the serious collector permission to collect certain molluscs and at certain times. For the more casual collector who picks up shells that are washed up on the beach the only restriction seems to be a weight limit of 1kg.per day and they must be for your own use. Commercial collecting has other implications.
Kinds of collections.
Most collectors who are serious about the hobby usually specialize in a particular group of shells (for example Cowries or Cones) or in the shells from a particular country (South Africa or Australia) or even from an specific area (Eastern Cape). As shells are exposed to light they begin to lose their colour, pattern and lustre and so some collectors use a mineral oil that helps to bring out the original colour and patterns. Painting the shell with lacquer is not recommended by serious collectors as is changes the original look of the shell. At the same time for the casual collector it adds to the visual enjoyment.
Molluscs, and so also their shells have scientific and local names. So the common Tiger Cowrie is actually called Cypraea tigris and was first named by the famous naturalist Linnaeus in 1758. Within the Mollusc family there are six classes with the two largest being Gastropods and Amphineura that contain most of the shells you will find along the coast.
A study of the habitat, reproduction and life of these organisms that we know as shells is fascinating. At the same time collecting a few beautiful shells along the sandy shore closest to you will bring pleasure not only to you but also to those who you share them with.
South African Shells-a collectors guide; Deirdre Richards, Struik Publishers