Originally published on Audubon Guides on August 20th, 2012
The gulf coast beaches of Florida are famed for the amazing seashells that wash ashore. Scallops, conchs, whelks, pen shells, turkey wings and a myriad of others become treasures to tourists and locals who are no doubt entranced by the variety of colors and shapes these sea creatures come in. What is easy to overlook, is what is underfoot when we walk in the water along our coasts. The shells we gather were once occupied and lived in a community of unseen denizens in the sand.
|Gulf Coast shore birds © Pete Corradino|
Bunche Beach in Fort Myers is a little known, sand and mud bottomed beach between Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. At low tide, the crowds arrive. Black Skimmers, Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, Least Terns, American Avocets, Whimbrels, Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlin, Willets and other coastal birds probe the flats in search of bivalves, crustaceans, sand worms and other critters that are vulnerable when the tide falls. One of the favorite snacks of gulls and terns is the radiant Sunray Venus Clam (Macrocallista nimbus).
Sunrays are found in muddy environments where they can burrow up to twenty five feet deep. Storms often send them tumbling up towards the beach where they make easy pickings for birds, raccoons and other coastal species. My son plucked one from the sand. It was empty but the radiant sun burst of color was evidence that it had been freshly vacated. Sunrays, while brilliant with pinks, salmons, grays and blacks will quickly fade in the sun.
|Sunray Venus Clam © Pete Corradino|
The ligament that holds each valve together was tenaciously protecting a ghost of an occupant. The umbo, the terminal meeting point of both halves was chipped and scratched as if the shell had taken a turbulent ride in the sand. Inside, the shell was porcelain with a faint touch of salmon around the centers.
It’s a beautiful shell and certainly made a good home for the departed owner. Now in my son’s collection of sea treasures, it is a reminder of the mysteries underfoot and the sunshine in the sea.