For many creatures, the home going where they go is part of their routine daily life. They take their house everywhere they go, retreat into it during times of trouble, and only are free of it when either they outgrow their current house or they leave the mortal coil of this world.
Yes, dear Reader, I am talking about shells and the creatures that live in them. Shells are more than pretty trinkets to pick up on the beach. They are homes to many marine creatures.
If you step back and think about it, shells are rather a brilliant solution from nature. Not only do they provide protection, they often also function as the skeleton too. The most common shells are made from calcium carbonate which makes them different from human skeletons, as human skeletons are composed of still living tissue. Calcium carbonate shells are like hair in that the cells are no longer alive. As an interesting side note, pearls are also made of calcium carbonate but look vastly different than the average shell although some shells do have the nacre (iridescent) effect.
Creatures such as clams and snails grow their own shells to function as an exoskeleton and home. Other creatures use abandoned shells as their home, such as hermit crabs and the spotted octopus which hides in two halves of clamshells.
Shells exhibit astounding variety and colors. They are often quite pretty which has drawn humans to them for aeons. Cowrie shells once functioned as currency and pearls were once more prized than diamonds for their rarity. Shells have also been used as various tools and household items, such as ceremonial knives, hair ornaments, and vessels for liquids. During the Heian era in Japan, people played a game matching halves of clamshells together in a sort of memory game.
Gathering shells on the beach can also be a fun family activity when safety precautions are taken. Shell gathering can be a fun activity like agate hunting on the shores of the Great Lakes.
If you are concerned about potential ethical issues relating to gathering shells, first determine if shell gathering is allowed on the preferred beach. Please check with authorities to determine if shell gathering is allowed on the beach. If it’s allowed, when you pick up the shell, ensure it is abandoned, meaning no living creatures in them. Shells are plentiful so if you take a selection of the most attractive shells in a responsible quantity, shell gathering could also be a good lesson in helping children learn to make responsible and ethical decisions. They key really is to act responsibly and ethically. In these photos of a beach near Tampa, Florida, you can see how plentiful the shells are.
Commercial harvesting of shells can be questionable as to whether it is done responsibly and ethically, but if gathering is done of empty shells or the creature is harvested for food (i.e. clams and certain gastropods), most reasonable people would determine ethical concerns should be addressed.
If you live in an area where clams are harvested for food or pearls, a visit to the nearest dock where you can observe the activities without disrupting the workers could also teach your child about how the ocean helps to provide a living for the families who harvest the clams.
Clam beds are actually quite distinctive in that they are often not too far from shore and there are often a series of sticks marking the beds and the ownership thereof.
I have written more about sea shells for the Wise Owl Factory blog, which you can read at this link