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Volume 20, Number 4July/August 1969

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A Slight Case of Shell Shock

"All I did was turn up a magnificent cowrie on a Red Sea reef and zap! I felt like tiffany with his first diamond."

Written by Calvin L. Ham
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

In an issue of Holiday not long ago, I was reading about life in the British colony in the Seychelles island group when a line jumped to attention. "Their wives," the author noted acidly, "collect 'live' cowries and cones compulsively."

I did not agree with the writer's faintly malicious hint that people who collect sea shells are slightly dotty —unless you count a slight case of shell shock as evidence of instability—but he was quite right otherwise. Collecting shells is a compulsion. Cones and cowries are taken live and I'll tell you why in a minute.

I came down with my own case of shell shock two years ago. (All I did was turn up a magnificent cowrie on a Red Sea reef and zap! I felt like Tiffany with his first diamond.) And at first I thought I should keep it a secret. Fortunately, I have since learned that neither I nor the good ladies in the Seychelles are in the least uncommon. People all over the world are taking up shell collecting: harried city dwellers no less than lonely islanders, adventurous young men as well as timid old ladies, bright children and their parents, Americans as well as Japanese, Italians and Arabs. In the United States in 1956 there were 10,000 shell collectors. Today there are more than 100,000.

I have also learned that it is a condition as old and as widespread as man himself—and not merely for the joys inherent in oysters on the half shell, California abalones, New England clam chowder, or the unforgettable escargots of France. Romans, Saxons and Ecuadorean Indians collected cowries as charms to guarantee fertility and good hunting, North American Indians called shells wampum and used them as money, Phoenicians extracted dye from them and Aristotle, naturally, wrote a treatise on them. Today paleontologists study fossilized shells for clues to the location of oil deposits, Filippino artisans slice them thin and make translucent window glass, and a few American factories still use them to make buttons. No, my Seychelles brethren and I are not alone.

A collector usually starts by idly bringing home a few colorful specimens from the beach. At this stage, cowries, because of their symmetry and color, are favorites. Then, as interest quickens, he begins to wonder about the shells whose curious names crop up in conversations with other collectors, names like the Much-desired Volute, the Tapestry Turban, More Beautiful Abalone or Roman Shield Scutus. Why, he wonders, is the Armenian Cowrie so called when it is found only in Australia? Or the Little Arabian, which comes only from Central America? What did the Clandestine Cowrie do? What contaminated Cypraea contaminata? Do their names accurately describe the Snakeskin Nerite, the Bleeding Tooth, the Florida Fighting Conch, the Dragon's Head Cowrie, the Snipe's Bill and the Zigzag Cowrie?

If he decides to continue, and he probably will, he quickly learns why those poor abused colonial ladies collect their cowries and cones "live". To get shells at their prime, with their rich color and smooth texture intact, they must be taken while the creature that creates the shell is still inhabiting it. The lustre of the shell of the live cowrie, for example, is like fine china—a result of the cowrie's ability to cover the exterior of the shell with an extension of a filmy organ within its own body. This prevents any of the tiny organisms inhabiting the sea from attaching themselves to it and protects it from the abrasion of waves and sand. If the cowrie dies, its shell loses the protection of this film and is exposed to chipping and scratching and, later, to fading.

The lady collectors, therefore, are quite rational in insisting that their cowries be taken live. And the same may be said for the cones, although cones have a quite different device to protect their shells: a sort of skin called perio-stracum which ranges from a very thin, transparent coating such as that worn by the Sand-dusted Cone (Conus arenatus), to a thick, brown, velvet-like covering on the Virgin Cone (Conus virgo). This skin not only preserves the beauty of the shell; it can completely hide it. Lying in the sand, the Virgin Cone gives no hint of the pure white beauty waiting for a discerning eye to strip away its periostracum. The contrast is so striking, in fact, that serious collectors like to have a specimen of each state—one with the periostracum and one without.

It is here that you can tell how bad a case the collector has. A bag of "live" shells is not a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Not, anyway, until it has been given the kind of patience and effort that goes into restoring antique furniture or old automobiles. So if a collector goes on to clean, soak, brush and polish the shells, his compulsion has become an obsession. He's hooked and he'll never be the same.

While it is the beauty of shells that first attracts the neophyte he might soon tire of the hobby, because not all shells are lovely. Fortunately, by the time he reaches the point of diminishing returns in his search for beauty, he has often become intrigued with the fantastic variety of shell forms.

This variety is really not surprising if you consider the molluscan position in the scientific order of things. Mollusks comprise one of the approximately 14 phyla into which the animal kingdom is divided. The vertebrates—mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and several other classes—comprise another phylum. Knowing the great diversity of vertebrates, ranging from man to elephant, to hummingbird, to rattlesnake, to angel fish—it is not surprising to find mollusks as various in color as the Violet Snail (Janthina janthina) and certain turban shells, green as oxidized copper; varying in size from Marginella aphan-acme, 2.5 millimeters long, to Tridacna gigas (the "man-eating" Giant Clam), which has reached 54 inches and 580 pounds; ranging in form from flat, eight-plated chitons to the globular Partridge Shell (Tonna perdix); and existing in such opposing environments as the ocean floor 2½ miles down and a ledge 18,000 feet up in the Himalayas.

There are six classes of mollusks: the gastropods (univalves or snails); pelecypods (bivalves or clams); scaphopods (tusk shells); amphineura (chitons or coat-of-mail shells); cephalopods (nautilus and argonaut shells as well as, surprisingly, the octopus and squid—which conchologists do not collect) and the rare, deep-sea monoplacophora. The classes, moreover, are divided into more than 100 families and the number of living species is in the neighborhood of 100,000, of which cowries account for from 145 to 190 and cones 400 to 600. And if that still isn't enough, the collector can always look into the 100,000 species that have been identified as fossils, but are now extinct.

Fortunately for conchologists, the land masses that separate the oceans, as well as the differences in water temperatures, restrict the migration of salt water mollusks from one part of the world to another. The molluscan world is thus divided into provinces, each with its own unique species, each providing new worlds for the collector to explore—if not personally then by trading or purchasing.

On the west coast of North America, for example, you find species that do not live on the east coast. The cool-water Californian province spawns different species than the Panamic further south, One of the world's six pearl-producing species of oysters, Meleagrina vulgaras thrives on the east coast of the Arabian peninsula but not in the Red Sea. The Mediterranean has its own particular species, as does Japan and South Africa.

The largest province is the Indo-Pacific—stretching from Hawaii through Australia, the East Indies and the Philippines to the east coast of Africa—and one of the most interesting parts of it is the Red Sea, an isolated, almost landlocked pocket which harbors many unique species and interesting subspecies.

Within each province, of course, exists a wide range of physical environments, and each molluscan family has its own preference. The conches, for example, generally like shallow water and a sandy bottom, the volutes, deep water, the cowries, a rock to cling to, the bivalves, sand. Where the bivalves go, so do the murexes, which relish oysters and clams for supper.

Within these general preferences, each species has its own, very fussy specifications. In the Red Sea the brown-spotted Subulate Auger—long and thin and sharp as a pencil—is always found under sand at the ends of trails between the high and low water marks, in only a few inches of water while the Crenulate Auger (Terebra crenulata) usually chooses a less accessible 12 feet of water. Some of the cowries in the Red Sea—pantherina, qrayana, carneola, gracilis, Isabella —prefer the landward side of the inner reef, where the water is quiet but fresh and comparatively cool. Others—lynx, turdus and the elusive camelopardalis—I have always found in the nearly stagnant, very warm water only a few feet from shore. The uncommon Stolid Cowrie hides in coral heads rather than under rocks. Of the cones, arenatus, tessulatus, virgo and sumatrensis (the Red Sea-Indian Ocean sub-species of Conus vexillum) are found lying on or in sand between shore and reef, while Textile Cones and Striate Cones hide under rocks on the reef. It is perhaps just as well that the latter two are well concealed since they have tiny harpoons in their noses with which they can inject poison that can paralyze a man.

Most shells are adept at concealing themselves; only a few give the hunter no sport. Many are elusive by virtue of the very inaccessibility of their habitat. Some are common in one part of their province, rare in others. Others—like the Glory-of-the-Seas (Conus gloria-ntaris) —are just rare. First described in 1777, only 70 specimens have ever been found. Another, the Glory-of-India Cone, of the Indian Ocean, fetches up to $1,300. Only 17 specimens of Cypraea guttata (the Great Spotted Cowrie of the southwest Pacific) have been found, and can fetch $950.

These, collectors only dream of finding, but just closing in on a species in your area can be challenging too. I am still searching, for example, for the Venus Comb Murex, Murex triremis, a species prized by collectors for the delicate beauty of its spines. It is by no means rare but specimens with all spines perfect are elusive. From beach specimens with broken spines I know the species exists near Jiddah, but so far I have not been able to find any alive.

Another specimen I have been hunting is the Arabian Tibia (Tibia insulae-chorab), a large shell with lovely lines that rates up to $15 in Van Nostrand's Standard Catalog of Shells. I first saw it as a beat-up beach specimen in the fishermen's village at Mastabah, 60 miles south of Jiddah. The fishermen assured me they could find live ones, and promised, generously, to collect and preserve them until I came their way again. Two weeks later I quivered with excitement as they withdrew a burlap bag from the water and opened it. And then ... my smile faded. "Live" Tibias all right; alive with hermit crabs! So back to the search.

At last a colony was located by another collector and I drove 50 miles north along the road to Medina and then swung west toward the sea, my Land-Rover churning up powder sand like the sea before the prow of a ship. Arriving at the shore at dawn, before the wind had raised waves to stir up the silty bottom of the bay, I swam out, dove down 30 feet, being careful not to touch the mud and cloud the view. And there they—well, they were there last week.

In his search for shells the avid collector often graduates from conchology to malacology—the study of the whole mollusk, not just the empty shells. He more or less has to if he wants to know how shells are created.

Mollusks come from eggs that their mothers scatter around in great quantities on rocks, in sand or even in the open sea. In some species the eggs are retained within the mother's body and hatched there and some, like cowries, sit on their eggs like little hens, with their mantles folded around them until they hatch. In other species the eggs come in gelatinous ribbons, in cases like a honeycomb or even mixed with sand formed into an artistic arrangement resembling an open flower and held together with a sticky secretion-. Whatever their shapes, the eggs eventually produce a tiny organism that swims around in larval state for a while and then settles down and begins manufacturing its shell.

The creation of a sea shell is really a form of alchemy—the medieval attempt to change common metals into gold. For what the mollusk does is take minerals from sea water and with the help of a minute, quite remarkable gland in the mantle (the filmy organ that protects the shell) converts them into an infinite variety of forms and colors, each species producing a shell like those of the others in its own species, but different from all other species. It is a marvelous process. Minute holes in the membrane squirt out the colors at specified intervals and places to produce the pattern built into its genes—rather like instructions programmed for a computer. In the univalves—snails—the process begins with the spire and continues round and round, usually, but not always, in a clockwise direction, until the shell is complete. The number of whorls varies from family to family and species to species. Slim, tapering auger shells, for example, have from 12 to 20, cones six to eight.

Most immature shells are miniature replicas of what they will become as adults. But a few young species are so different from the adult form they are difficult to identify. The immature cowrie is often mistaken for a Bubble Shell, very thin and fragile, with a large opening and no denticulation or tooth-like marks on either the inner or outer lip. The shell gradually thickens and the outer lip is extended until it almost meets the inner. Finally the denticulation is produced. By this time the final colors have been applied and then a colorless, transparent coat is laid on and the job is done.

All this takes time: up to a year for a cowrie, up to six for some trochus shells—almost as long as it takes collectors to learn about it. At the end it is worth it. The mollusk has a shell as lovely as a rainbow and the collectors have such specialized knowledge that they may one day make a serious contribution to science.

Not many do this, of course. But in conchology the professionals, busy teaching and writing, do lean heavily on the enthusiasm of private collectors in the field throughout the world—and always have. The private collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), for example, became the nucleus of the British Museum's collection and in 1956 Mrs. Orville R. Davis, an amateur collector, accidentally turned up a conch that Mr. William Old of the American Museum of Natural History identified as a new species, now called "Bill Old's Conch."

For most collectors, however, this is the furthest thing from their minds. What they really like is much more elemental: the tang of salt air at dawn, the look of clear water, and the sharp excitement of seeking and finding an object of beauty. There are worse compulsions.

Calvin L. Ham, Administrative Assistant to Aramco's Representative in Jiddah, has lived in Saudi Arabia for 17 years and in Jiddah, on the Red Sea, for the past five years.

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the July/August 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1969 images.