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The beauty of Sea Shells

August 2012 

Sea ShellsShe sells sea shells on the sea shore! Shells have been on our sea shores since time immemorial - the outer shells of dead creatures that live in the sea.

Just seeing the wonderful colours and shapes, the amazing variety of shells found around the world gives a small insight into the unbelievable variation of sea life.

Sea shells are found on mollusks or sea animals that don’t have a backbone (a fish is an aquatic animal with a backbone). The shells of mollusks are mainly composed of calcium carbonate which is secreted by the animal’s mantle - a special tissue. This secretion hardens to result in the shell - either an univalved or single shell (as in landsnails), or a two-part bivalve shell (as in oysters or clams). These are the two main types of shells. There are additional types such as shells composed of the series of plates found in chitons but then it all gets very technical.

But of course which such an incredibly diversity of shelled creatures living in the sea, the whole subject of sea shells is immensely complex. The study of shells is called conchology but while this can be used to cover shell collecting, generally if you are interested in shells, the term most people use is simple shell collector.

It is the extraordinary range of colours and shapes that usually tempt people to become shell collectors. The colours and designs are usually dependent on the diet of the animal. In warmer waters, where there is usually plentiful food from various sources, the shells can develop vibrant colours and intricate patterns. In colder waters the food sources are usually more restricted and shells generally tend to be a little darker and also in more subdued shades of white, grey and beige.

The overall look of the shell is set by not only the food that the animal eats, but also the pattern of activity in the mantle which will dictate how often the colour pigments are deposited in the shell. If the pigment secretion is continuous, this can result in a spiral or radial line of colour in a shell. Spasmodic secretion, which can be due to irregular feeding patterns, can result in spots or flecks of colour in the shell.

Different species create different shells to protect their individual shape and this means different sizes as well, from tiny shells to the shell of the giant clam which can produce bivalve shells up to three feet across. One has been recorded at 55 inches or nearly five feet wide.

Most sea shell collectors will go for the smaller colourful shells in a variety of shapes. Shells have been used for decoration for thousands of years, and have also been used as currency, musical instruments and other purposes.

Various tourist attractions around the UK coast offer dramatic displays involving sea shells. The shell grotto in Margate has over 4.6 million shells lining the walls of winding underground passages and also an enormous rectangular chamber where the shells offer an enormous beautiful mosaic.

The Shell Garden in Jersey, Channel Islands, is a huge tourist attraction featuring thousands of shells found locally that have been used to decorate miniature buildings and adorn a beautiful garden.

The Shell Museum in Glandford, Norfolk, is said to house the finest seashell collection in the UK and it certainly has an extraordinarily wide collection.

In fact, there are individual displays of shells all over the UK - and the world - as the fascination continues down the generations. Today many people use sea shells to decorate parts of their home, or to insert in picture frames for a natural and pretty display.

Sometimes people are curious about the holes in the shells which make them easier to hang or display and wonder if they have been drilled on purpose. In fact, many shells do have small holes in them, holes made by predators in the sea who wanted to get to the animal inside for their food. They drill or chip or nibble away at the mollusk’s shell and some sea creatures can even emit a special enzyme to dissolve a hole in the shell to get to the animal inside.

Today you don’t have to tour the beaches to collect sea shells, although that is usually half the fun for collectors. There are numerous commercial shell suppliers that obtain their shells with ecological certification to ensure they come from sustainable sources. That means you can find shells in specific colours and shapes to enhance the display exactly as you want.

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