Do You Really Know About Shells?

by Jose Coltro
I remember when I started collecting shells thirty years ago. Each January my parents used to take my brother Marcus and me to the beach for our summer vacation (Remember that we Brazilians live in the Southern Hemisphere and we have opposite seasons from the North Hemisphere). We commonly stayed there for five or six weeks. Our usual destination was Santos, just 50 miles from our home in São Paulo. There, each morning we walked along the beach looking for shells. We just used to collect dead specimens, most of them fresh-dead ones. Species like Olivancillaria vesica (Gemlin, 1791); Polinices hepaticus (Röding, 1798); Sanguinolaria cruenta (Lightfoot, 1786) and Tellina punicea (Born, 1778) were easy to find. At that time we just piled the shells in boxes. But one day one of those boxes started smelling really awful and we didn't know what happened. Over the course of days, I washed all the shells many times. I used all kinds of soaps, and finally I decided to use some of our mother's perfume to extinguish the smell! The result was terrible. My mother sent me to the beach to throw away all the shells and finally there I found the "bad shell" -- an alive-taken Anadara notabilis (Röding, 1798) was among the hundreds of shells and it died, of course, after some days out of the water. I could not imagine that a single dead shell could smell like that!

Some years later, I was looking for shells in a rocky area and I found my first Cymatium parthenopeum (von Salis, 1793) -- a dead and crabbed specimen. It was very exciting and we wanted to keep the shell, but I didn't want to kill the poor little animal. Well, I decided to prepare an aquarium to keep the hermit crab alive. For months I took care of the small crab and one day I found a dead crab body on the aquarium floor. Great! I could finally put the shell in my "collection." When I took the shell from the aquarium I sensed a fresh marine odor and I decided to cook the shell to clean it. The crab wasn't dead -- it just changed the old skin and I cooked it alive! It was a nasty shock! I didn't know about hermit crabs and their habits. Anyway, I put the shell in the collection.

I normally asked all my relatives and friends to bring shells from their trips. One day, a friend brought me a large Concholepas concholepas (Bruguière, 1782) from Chile. My reaction was a little bit disappointed -- I told Marcus that I would like to have both valves. I didn't know that this species, resembling an Arcidae valve, is a gastropod and belongs to the Muricidae family.

One day I heard about how to clean shells using microwaves. My mother had just bought a new one. I had a Turritella exoleta (L., 1758) with rest of the animal inside. I had already tried to clean the shell using water and it was impossible. I decided to put the shell in the microwave. It was catastrophic! The terrible odor invaded the entire house. Took over two days to clean the microwave! I didn't know that dead shells could have their odor refreshed by microwaves.

In 1983 Marcus and I finally saw our first shell exhibition. A Brazilian collector, Jose Roberto Heise, did a small exhibition in an aquarium store and we had our first contact with other collectors. In the exhibition Jose Roberto put his gorgeous Xenophora pallidula (Reeve, 1843) there. I commented to Marcus that the exhibition had some gorgeous specimens, except those Xenophora. How was it possible that a man could take so many gorgeous specimens and attach them on another shell -- what a silly thing to do -- I didn't know that Xenophora attaches shells by itself.

Then there was the time when I had collected my first live cowries: Marcus and I went to Ilhabela and we found over 50 huge Cypraea zebra L., 1758. We didn't know how to clean them, so we decided to leave the shells in fresh water -- we lost all the 50 specimens. We didn't know that fresh water could be really bad for glossy shells.

In 1984, my friend Bernardo Linhares, from Salvador, Bahia, sent his first shell delivery to me. Marcus and I started to clean the shells at our mother's laundry. The task took many days and it started to smell badly. The neighbors started to complain about the odor. So terrible was it that we were expecting to have the police in our house looking for dead bodies -- I didn't know that cleaning shells was such a slow process.

In our first trip to Ecuador, I collected some Purpura pansa Gould, 1853. I kept the shells on my hand for quite some time. After that my hand was completely purple and smelling really bad. The color and odor took weeks to disappear. I didn't know that some species could dye you!

When we went to Samoa, I told my friend Eduardo Schirrmeister that it is better to keep nerites alive, just drying them, and waiting to clean them at home. I didn't know that he would do that, but besides drying the shells, he put them inside a Gatorade bottle and closed it very tightly. Of course the air inside of the bottle ran out, and the nerites began to die. The gases from the dead animals inside made it a bomb! When he tried to open the bottle, a terrible odor overwhelmed all his room and the hotel. The solution was to open the bottle into the seawater. Even this way, the odor polluted the entire beach! He didn't know that dry nerites need fresh air to stay alive.

As you can see I am learning about shells each day and I can't believe that anybody really understands everything about them. I believe that each experience, even the worst of them, brings us good information, ideas and knowledge. It is very important to keep our minds always open, because not only in shells but also in all the facets of life, each new event teaches us something new.