Photographs by Ginny Horton and Judy Drew Fairchild
There is no lovelier place to take a walk than at the edge of an ocean, and the beaches of DeBordieu, Pawleys Island and Litchfield are no exception. The vast ocean and the primal world within create a natural setting like no other, and because it is unique, walkers often encounter animals, shells and other objects that they can’t identify or know very little about.
Be sure to “collect” shells with photos rather than removing them from the beach, especially if they contain live animals.
Lettered Olive Shell: Made the state shell of South Carolina in 1984, lettered olives were given their name because markings on the shells can resemble calligraphy letters. This is a predatory sea snail that uses its long foot to grab prey, such as coquina clams and mole crabs. It lives completely outside its shell. Lettered olive snails do not have an operculum, and, therefore, cannot close off the opening of their shells. They live under the sand in shallow water and can grow to be 2.5 inches long. Because the shell is covered almost completely by the snail when it’s alive, the outside shells of snails that have died recently are very shiny and polished looking.
Pen Shell: These animals live partially buried in the intertidal sand flats and grass beds and can be found in shallow water from North Carolina to Florida. Pen shells use incredibly strong byssus threads to anchor themselves into the sand in order to withstand the motion of the waves and tides. They live in colonies, so hundreds can wash up on the beach at one time. Pen shells have a very tasty, scallop-like adductor muscle and are capable of producing black pearls.
Atlantic Slipper Snail Shell: These sea snails can move on their own, but they tend to find a great location and stay there, with others piling on. They gather in clusters on slow moving anchors like horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs or whelks. Slipper snails have an incredible ability to switch genders as they go through life. Every slipper snail begins as a male and eventually changes to female so it can lay eggs.
Auger Snail Shell: Augers feed on worms below the surface of the sand. You might see a slight trail in a tide pool that leads to a living auger. If you see an auger shell moving quickly across the top of the sand, it is probably occupied by a hermit crab and not the original snail. Sometimes you’ll see living augers gathered near the exit to a worm burrow.
Venus Clam Shell: Recognized by the five to seven deep ridges on its shell, this shell is found south of Cape Hatteras in ocean depths of 60-120 feet. It is a somewhat rare shell to find, and the fact that they are often seen in this area have garnered them the local nickname of the “Pawleys Island Shell.” This was a small specimen, but they can grow to 1.5 inches.
Cannonball Jellyfish: These are the most common jellyfish to wash up on local beaches, especially during summer and fall. They have a bell-shaped body that can grow as large as 10 inches in diameter and is occasionally rimmed by a reddish pigment. Cannonballs very rarely sting humans – they don’t have tentacles, but they do have stinging cells (nematocysts) that are relatively benign. Cannonball jellyfish are a favorite food of loggerhead sea turtles.
Giant Cockle Shell: Living cockles are often found in intertidal waters and occasionally can be discovered in action perching on the edge of tide pools. Cockles are filter feeders, drawing water in to get nutrients, then puffing it out. They can move quickly by “leaping” through the water. The small tunnels on the inside of this specimen are from a marine worm that creates these tubes from the calcium in the shell.
Moon Snail Collar: Moon snails create an elaborate, round “collar” cemented together with sand and mucus on which to lay their eggs. If you’re fortunate enough to find a moon snail sand collar with eggs still attached, you might be able to see holes in the eggs where the young snails hatched or even actual tiny snails. If you do, be sure to put it back in the water to give the babies a chance!
Moon Snail: When moon snails move through the sand, most of the shell is completely covered by the snail. The front part of the foot is used for digging, and the mantle surrounds the shell to streamline the shape and allow it to move through the sand below the surface. The foot takes in water to expand and propel the snail through the sand. These mollusks have a radula, a sort of toothy-tongue apparatus, which is used to bore a hole into the shell of its prey. When you find shells on the beach with perfect holes in them, their owners were probably moon snail meals!
Ghost Shrimp Hole: A common sight on a beach walk is the ghost shrimp hole, which can reach as far as 6 feet below the sand. Ghost shrimp are crustaceans with long bodies and two claws, one much larger than the other. They can grow up to 4 inches long and are actually more closely related to lobsters and hermit crabs than shrimp. Ghost shrimp feed on organic matter that they filter from sea water, and they rarely leave their tunnels. The sprinkle-shaped objects that surround the holes are fecal pellets.
Sea Whip: A type of soft coral found mostly in subtropical and tropical areas, they are filter feeders that eat plankton and other detritus in the water. Each sea whip is actually a colony of many tiny animals that have tentacles and look similar to sea anemones. A colony grows very slowly and reaches about 39 inches over many years. Sea whips and other corals are important parts of the ocean environment, as they provide shelter for small fish and other sea creatures.
Angel Wing Clam Shell: Found from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico, the angel wing clam lives in shallow water. The shells have approximately 26 radiating ribs with protruding “teeth” that it uses to dig burrows in soft rock or clay. It uses long siphons that it sticks out of its protective burrow to bring in water and filter for food. The muscles that hold the shell valves together are weak, which is why it is rare to find both sides of a shell still attached (but obviously not impossible!).
Common Jingle Shell: A common find on the beach, jingle shells come in different shades of yellow, orange, brown, white and black. They have an asymmetrical shell, and the shell usually found on the beach is the left valve of the shell. The right one is often still attached to whatever solid item in the substrate they were attached to. The inside of the shell usually has a mark shaped like a footprint.
Skate Egg Casing: Clearnose skates are non-boney fish that resemble (and are related to) sting rays. The skate egg case is sturdy and made of keratin (like our fingernails). The “horns” on each corner of an egg case act as anchors that catch on seaweed and other objects to help keep the egg case at the bottom of the ocean until the baby skate is ready to emerge. Female skates may lay more than 65 eggs in a season. Also known as mermaid’s purses, the casings wash up on the beach after the juvenile skate hatches.
Plumed Worm Casing: This species of worm uses mucus to attach bits of shells and other debris to its casing to create a hard layer of protection. The worm also uses this casing as a sort of “garden” to capture microscopic particles that collect or grow on the surface of the tube. Plumed worms grow to 10 inches long, and when actively feeding, tentacles will protrude from the tops of their casings. They eat microorganisms, small invertebrates and detritus.
Razor Clam Shell: Also known as a jackknife clam, the Razor Clam has a large muscular foot that allows it to burrow very rapidly in wet sand – much faster than most people can dig. So even though it is considered a delicacy, few people try to catch them. Razor clams are able to swim, due to their streamlined shape and strong foot. At low tide, the keyhole-shaped openings one sees in the sand are razor clam burrows; water squirts out of them when the calm is digging.
Lined Sea Star: This is a type of starfish that has five long, slender arms and is somewhat flat. If it loses an arm, it has the ability to regenerate a new one, with a small “tip” appearing within one week. Sea stars feed on mussels, clams and other invertebrates, and they can apply up to 12 pounds of force to pry open the shells of its prey. On the underside, there is a mouth in the center and many tiny tubular feet filled with sea water that help with locomotion and feeding.
Coquina Clam Shell: These tiny shells are abundant on the beaches of DeBordieu, Pawleys Island and Litchfield and come in many colors. They burrow into the swash zone, and you can often see them scrambling into the sand as a wave recedes. Coquinas are a popular food target for a wide variety of other organisms. Ghost crabs dig into the sand to find them, moon snails prey upon them, and shorebirds probe for them at the tideline.
Sanderlings: A small kind of sandpiper, sanderlings feed on invertebrate animals buried deep in the sand at the edge of the ocean. Their main prey are crustaceans that move closer to the surface of the sand to feed on plankton and other nutrients in the water as waves wash over them. Once the wave recedes, the animals quickly burrow back down. The sanderlings poke their beaks in the sand and dash about quickly as each wave comes in so they can catch as many crustaceans as possible while they are at the surface.
Knobbed Whelk Shell: Like all univalves, knobbed whelks are snails. They pry open bivalves such as clams and oysters with the sharp side of their shell and scrape out the meat with their tongue-like radula. They can be found just at or below the surface of the sand in tide pools and are sometimes seen cruising the intertidal zone and shallow water as they look for food.
Channeled Whelk: Although they are closely related to the knobbed whelk and have similar eating habits, the channeled whelk is differentiated from the knobbed whelk by a shell that is wider, rounder and lacks large protruding knobs. They also have hard edges in the channels of the shell. I briefly put this specimen on its back to take a photograph, and within a minute it had righted itself and was moving away.
Ghost Crab Burrow: Ghost crabs are the mid-size white crabs found on the beach at night. They have a painful pinch and are not good to eat. Ghost crabs (all local crabs in fact) are aquatic and get their oxygen from water via gills. To spend time on land, the ghost crab’s lungs and gills sit in a kind of bucket to let them bring water with them to breathe. They must return to the water every few hours to refill their water supply (think a scuba tank, but backwards).
Sargassum Weed: This brown floating algae is usually found on the open ocean and sometimes washes ashore. It provides vital habitat to hundreds of species, including sea turtles, who spend the first years of their lives living in the sargassum. If you find a fresh clump on the beach, it’s possible to find small crabs, brittle stars and even sea horses within it. If you do find living creatures, put them back into the water!
Baby Ear Snail Shell: These gastropods are related to the moon snail, but their shell is much flatter, with a low, smooth spire and a very large opening. It is one of just a few snails that can’t draw its foot up into its shell. The snails live entirely on the outside of the shell. They look like a blob of mucus surrounded by bits of sand, because the shell is entirely hidden by soft tissue. Baby ear snails prey on other mollusks, particularly bivalves such as clams.
Purple-Spined Sea Urchin Shell and Spines: Sea urchins are in the same family as starfish and have similar tubular feet that the animal fills with water for use in locomotion and feeding. They have a mouth in the center of the underside with five very sharp teeth used for tearing food and digging holes in which to hide. The shell of an urchin is called a test, which is covered in spines that help the animal move and protect itself. Urchins eat algae, barnacles, kelp, dead fish, mussels, small sea animals and sponges.