Ah, summer at the beach. What is your favorite beach activity? Swimming? Surfing? Volleyball? How about beachcombing? Do you like to collect seashells? Here is a brief guide to shells and other treasures you might discover on Virginia beaches. (To see the real thing, without a trip to the beach, visit the Science Museum’s exhibit, Beach Science: It’s a Shore Thing. The exhibit has labeled examples of most of these shells.)
Whelks are large sea snails; several species are native to Virginia. Knobbed Whelks and Channeled Whelks grow to 9 inches and, like most other whelks, have a right-side opening in their shell. Lightning whelks are similar but have a left-side opening and can grow to 12 inches. Whelks live in the sand in shallow water feeding on clams and other bivalves.
Atlantic Bay Scallop shells come in many colors, are ribbed and have “ears” near the hinge. This scallop lives in shallow waters along the southern Atlantic coast. Unlike other bivalves, scallops lie on the bottom rather than burrowing in the sand.
Angel Wings have a fragile white oblong shell and are found along the Atlantic coast south of Massachusetts. They burrow up to 2 feet in sand or mud and feed on algae through a siphon. Stout Razor Clams look similar but without ribs on the shell.
Arks are boxy bivalves with thick heavy shells that can tolerate rough surf. Several species live in the southern Chesapeake Bay, including the Ponderous Ark and Transverse Ark. Another species, the Blood Ark, is the only clam in the world with red blood.
Northern Quahogs or hard shell clams are usually gray, brown or white, can grow up to 4 inches and may live 30 years. Like Arks, most live in Virginia waters in the southern end of the bay. Native Americans used Quahog shells for wampum.
The Eastern Oyster has a rough gray or white shell and can grow to 4 inches. They attach to one another as they grow, forming dense reefs. Once so numerous that only the working classes would eat them, they are now greatly reduced in numbers.
This odd looking object is a Skate Egg Case. Skates, related to rays, are bottom-dwelling and lay their eggs in the sand. These egg cases, sometimes called “Mermaid’s Purses,” often wash up on Atlantic beaches.
Whelk egg capsules are attached together in a chain of 50-100. One end of the chain is then secured to the sea floor to prevent the eggs from washing ashore where they would dry out. The chain looks a bit like a lei and are sometimes called “Mermaid’s Necklaces.”
For more information, visit http://www.chesapeakebay.net/ and http://www.assateague.net/. Thanks to both websites for these photos.