Footprints in the Sand - Eco Trail
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Seashells

The term “seashell” generally refers to the hard, protective outer layer of marine animals, usually mollusks. The shores of Pensacola Beach are lined with empty seashells; the animal that once lived inside has died and the soft parts have been eaten by another animal or have rotted away.

Seashells are typically made of limestone, the crystal form of calcium carbonate. A thin tissue that surrounds mollusks, known as the mantle, secretes the limestone shell. The mantle crystalizes the calcium carbonate from the blood of the mollusk then lays it down in layers. The crystalline pattern of the calcium carbonate will determine the shell’s shape. The mantle also secretes pigments, giving shells distinct colors and patterns.

The most commonly found shells come from bivalves (oysters), gastropods (snails), scaphopods (tusk shells), polyplacophorans (chitons), and cephalopods (the nautilus and spirula).

The study and collection of seashells is known as conchology. The science has a long history of amateur involvement—both amateur collectors and local shell clubs have made many contributions by collecting, identifying, and cataloging shells.

Sand Dollars

Sand dollars are flat, irregular sea urchins with a thick coating of short spines that protects them like a coat of fur. Their bleached skeletons are often found and collected by beachcombers. These skeletons are not technically seashells, as sand dollars are urchins and not mollusks, but they are still widely desired for their unique patterns and shape. In folklore, sand dollars have been imagined as the currency of mermaids or the people of Atlantis.

Snails

A large number of Pensacola Beach shells come from snails. There are between 50,000 and 75,000 different species of snails, 60% of which are marine. Snails can be found crawling on ocean bottoms, adrift in the open sea, or grazing on seashores. Some of the more common snail shells on Pensacola Beach are horns, conchs, cones, olives, spindles, moonsails, sundials, and tops.

Shell Currency

Seashells were once used as currency in many areas around the world. Some Native American tribes greatly valued the dentalium shell, a species of tusk shell. The value of the shell was dependent on its length; their highest form of currency was the “ligua,” a tusk shell with a length of about six feet.