Mad About Seashells

Collectors have long prized mollusks for their beautiful exteriors, but for scientists, it’s what inside that matters

At an 18th-century auction in Amsterdam, Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter sold for about one-third the amount that its owner spent to obtain a then rare Conus gloriamaris shell. (Sean McCormick)
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The shells that got through to Europe in the early years were mostly sold privately by sailors and civil administrators in the colonial trade. When Capt. James Cook returned from his second round-the-world voyage in 1775, for instance, a gunner's mate aboard the Resolution wrote offering shells to Sir Joseph Banks, who had served as naturalist for Cook's first circumnavigation a few years earlier.

"Begging pardon for my Boldness," the note began, in a tone of forelock-tugging class deference. "I take this opportunity for acquainting your Honour of our arrival. After a long and tedious Voyage...from many strange Isles I have procured your Honour a few curiosities as good as could be expected from a person of my capacity. Together with a small assortment of shells. Such as was esteem'd by pretended Judges of Shells." (The last line was a sly jibe at the lesser naturalists who had taken Banks' place on the second circumnavigation.) Dealers sometimes waited at the docks to vie for new shells from returning ships.

For many collectors of that era, shells were not just rare, but literally a gift from God. Such natural wonders "declare the skilful hand from which they come" and reveal "the excellent artisan of the Universe," wrote one 18th-century French connoisseur. The precious wentletrap, a pale white spiral enclosed by slender vertical ribs, proved to another collector that only God could have created such a "work of art."

Such declarations of faith enabled the wealthy to present their lavish collections as a way of glorifying God rather than themselves, writes British historian Emma Spary. The idea of gathering shells on the beach also conferred spiritual status (although few wealthy collectors actually did so themselves). It symbolized escape from the workaday world to recover a sense of spiritual repose, a tradition invoked by luminaries from Cicero to Newton.

In addition, many shells suggested the metaphor of climbing a spiral staircase and, with each step, coming closer to inner knowledge and to God. The departure of the animal from its shell also came to represent the passage of the human soul into eternal life. The nautilus, for instance, grows in a spiral, chamber upon chamber, each larger than the one before. Oliver Wendell Holmes made it the basis for one of the most popular poems of the 19th century, "The Chambered Nautilus": Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, / As the swift seasons roll! /... Till thou at length art free, / Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!

Oddly, collectors didn't much care about the animals that actually built the shells. Holmes, for instance, unwittingly blended the characteristics of two separate nautilus species in his poem, according to shell historian Tucker Abbott: "It was as if he had written a poem about a graceful antelope who had the back half of a leopard and the habit of flying over the arctic ice." Collectors often cared passionately about new species, but mainly for the status of possessing something strange and unusual from a distant land, preferably before anybody else.

The absence of flesh-and-blood animals actually made shells more appealing, for a highly practical reason. Early collectors of birds, fish and other wildlife had to take elaborate and sometimes gruesome measures to preserve their precious specimens. (A typical set of instructions to bird collectors included the admonition to "open the Bill, take out the Tongue and with a sharp Instrument pierce through the roof of the Mouth to the Brain.") But those specimens inevitably succumbed to insects and decay anyway, or the beautiful colors faded to mere memory.

Shells endured, more like jewels than living things. In the 1840s, a British magazine recommended that shell collecting was "peculiarly suited to ladies" because "there is no cruelty in the pursuit" and the shells are "so brightly clean, so ornamental to a boudoir." Or at least it seemed that way, because dealers and field collectors often went to great lengths to remove any trace of a shell's former inhabitant.

In fact, however, the animals that build shells have turned out to be far more interesting than collectors ever supposed. One day at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which owns the world's largest shell collection, research zoologist Jerry Harasewych was cutting open a small land snail shell from the Bahamas. For scientific purposes, the museum preserves shells in as close to their natural state as possible. These specimens had been stored in the collection four years earlier. But Harasewych suddenly noticed something moving inside. It reminded him of an apocryphal story about a museum where the air conditioning quit and snails, resurrected by the humidity, came oozing out of the collection drawers. He put some of the other dried snails in water, he said, and they too started moving. It turned out that these snails live on dunes in sparse vegetation. "When it starts to get hot and dry, they seal themselves up within their shells," he said. "Then when the spring rains come, they revive."

Among other surprising behaviors, said Harasewych, a muricid snail can climb aboard an oyster, drill through its shell, then insert its proboscis and use the teeth at the tip to rasp up the oyster's flesh. Another species dines on shark: the Cooper's nutmeg snail works its way up through the sand underneath angel sharks resting on the bottom in the waters off California. Then it threads its proboscis into a vein in the gills and sucks the shark's blood. For the shark, it's like a gooey mosquito bite.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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