Shelling on Florida Gulf Coast

Shells on Anna Maria Island beaches

Shells on Anna Maria Island beaches

Every evening we walk several blocks across Anna Maria Island to the Gulf Beach, where we walk along the water’s edge as the sun approaches the horizon. It’s always interesting to notice what kinds of shells are on the beach at certain times. There are some “regulars,” which are almost always there. And there are some very unusual ones that show up only every once in awhile. But even the unusual ones tend to come in groups. In other words, if there is one, there are many. This happened one evening several years ago when there were beautiful shark’s eyes suddenly on the beach in large numbers.

The shells that usually wash ashore on the beaches of Anna Maria Island include spiny jewelboxes, which are white with spikes protruding. They look like bivalves, but are, in fact gastropods. Another fairly common gastropod shell is the lettered olive, which usually measures almost 2 inches long. We also come across Florida augers quite often, which are small cone-shaped shells.

A wide variety of bivalve shells is also seen at all times. One of the most interesting and charming is the little coquina, which comes in a wide range of pastels and earth tones. There is nothing more enchanting than seeing the live creatures in tidal pools, where they move with the inflow and outflow of the water. Little cat’s paws or kitten’s paws, range in color from white to black to orange. Jingles are translucent shells that come in these same three colors. About the size of a quarter, these round shells look like they’re made of mica.

There are several bivalves with remarkable patterns on them. Although it’s not unusual to see these shells, it is unusual to find one that is not worn. The sunray Venus may be the most beautiful of these shells, with a pattern that really does give the impression of sunrays. Both calico clams and calico scallops are quite common, too. The buttercup has an appealing smooth round shape, and is the color of butter. Less beautiful but more remarkable is the turkey wing, with one very straight edge and an otherwise roughly shaped surface, striped with brown.

It seems as if there have been fewer whelks and conchs on the beach in recent years. In the past, I would have said they were common … especially the fighting conch. Maybe it’s that we walk later in the day, and people have picked them up. Lightning whelks also used to be common on our walks.

Sand dollars come and go on our shores. They are extremely fragile, so if you collect them be sure to pack them carefully until you have an undisturbed place in which to display them. Sometimes live sand dollars can be found in the water. It is not ethical to take these live creatures. Anyway, they are not as beautiful, alive, as they are after they’ve been dead awhile and the sun has bleached them. In general, killing creatures for their shells is illegal or frowned upon in Florida. If that doesn’t bother you, think of how they stink and how difficult it can be to remove the creature from the shell when you get home. It’s best to take only empty shells that have been cleaned over time by the waves and the sun.

Banded tulips, a small wentletrap, Atlantic bubbles, and a king’s crown are among the less frequently seen shells I’ve found on the Anna Maria Island Gulf coast beach over the past ten years. I’m sure if our daily walks were at dawn, rather than sunset, there would have been even more treasures discovered over the years.

As it is, at the end of the day, when we bend down at the beach, it’s more likely to be to pick up a piece of garbage than a beautiful shell. The numerous small, colorful pieces of plastic seem to attract the birds the way the shells attract us, but then they eat it or become tangled in it. It seems that anyone willing to bend down to collect a shell can also make the effort to bend down to pick up plastic, which adds to the safety of the birds and the beauty of the beach. Fortunately, on Anna Maria Island, it seems many residents are willing to bend down for this reason, and the beaches are, therefore, remarkably clean.

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