I knew I would find shells, lots of shells, but I wanted to discover a shell that I hadn’t before. A stranded treasure, perhaps, something pretty much intact and something different was the purpose of this outing. There were a few people on the blustery day with the same idea.
I strolled along with my toddler and the advice given me. It was a full moon the previous night and we’d had a small storm. It was now low tide and I was walking around the inlet, sand bars, and tide pools just as instructed. Conditions were prime.
My son was enjoying exploring the shell litter along the tide with his toy rake and couldn’t resist getting wet, which only seemed to hold up any progress. Then, a woman with a stick and a bag of shells passed, so I gave up the hunt assuming she’d taken everything worth finding.
I am not a good shell hunter. I am more interested in looking out than looking down. However, the crunch of the shells beneath my shoes warranted one last glance as we headed back. And there it was.A single, cylinder-shaped shell that was in one piece and new to me.
A Gastropod of the Olividae family, these carnivorous mollusks live just below the surface in the intertidal zone, which is the area of the beach covered and exposed by the tides. It eats small bi-valves such as, eggcockles, coquinas and crustaceans, like sand crabs. It captures its prey with its foot and burrows under the sand to digest.
Females lay eggs that float until the young mollusks hatch and swim. The coiled ‘tail-end’ of the shell is called the spire and is pointy and short with four or five whorls. The other end has a broad notch called the siphonal notch. This is where marine snails stick out their ‘head’, which have tentacles with eyes on the tips.
The narrow slit on the bottom of the shell is called the aperture and extends nearly the full length. This is where the elongated muscular foot protrudes. When living, it inches along by the rippling motion of this foot and sometimes leaves behind tracks at low tide. Upon closer examination of the aperture, ridges can be seen. This is called the columellar callus.
Lettered olive shells are smooth and glossy because the living mollusks of the Oliva genus actually ‘polish’ them. The shells are long and narrow, up to two and one-half inches. The shell I found is tan with reddish-brown, zigzag spiral bands. The exterior can also be light brown with a gray or yellow tint and purplish markings. This species is named for this unusual design which resembles letters of the alphabet – hieroglyphics is more like it.
Nevertheless, this makes for the perfect shell for the amateur to easily identify. Seashells of North Carolina by Hugh J. Porter and Lynn Houser states the lettered olive is an occasional to common find on the Brunswick County beaches of North Carolina, but it is my first and that makes it a special treasure.
Further sources explain fisherman used them as bait and early colonists and Native Americans used these shells for jewelry and ornaments. Therefore, I am not the only one who has been pleased to find one. I also discovered the surest way to find anything is to give up looking.
Previously published in The Brunswick Beacon. Reprinted with permission.