We have been fortunate this autumn with above-average temperatures and exceptional weather that has allowed us to continue visiting the shore long after Labor Day has passed. As I sit here writing this article, however, we are in the midst of our first snow storm and an extended weather forecast that looks like “Old Man Winter” will finally be waking up and making his presence known. For many, this will put an end to visiting the beach. For those who are brave enough to endure the cold, the beach is full of treasures just waiting to be found.
Looking like small flakes of gold, silver and copper, jingle shells (above) are a prized find for any beachcomber. Their precious metal appearance makes them a favorite shell to be used in arts and crafts. In fact, they are named after the “jingling” sound they make when strung together to create wind chimes. At some beaches, they can be so abundant you can hear them “jingle” as they tumble around in the surf zone.
Jingle shells are bivalve filter feeders. Their upper shell is slightly rounded, while the bottom half is flat with a small hole located near the hinge. Through this hole, a bundle of byssal threads passes through to secure the organism to a hard substrate (similar to how a blue mussel attaches itself). Although they are akin to oysters and are often found growing among them, they are very bitter in taste and not considered good table fare.
Living in a similar habitat as jingle shells is a small gastropod (snail) known as the common slipper shell. This pinkish/purple shell can be up to two and a half inches long and will have a rounded topside. The underside of the shell is concave, with a “shelf” that takes up half the length of the shell. This shelf gives it its name because from the underside view it looks like a household slipper.
When alive, slipper shells attach to hard substrates such as rocks, pilings and boats. It is also very common for them to be hitchhikers on horseshoe crabs, whelks and bay scallops. Unlike many other species of gastropods, once they metamorphous from the larval stage to an adult, they will remain stationary. With a lack of locomotion, they will settle upon one another creating small stacks that will increase their odds at reproducing successfully.
To ensure that the male to female ratio in the stack is ideal, all slipper shells will start their life as a male and will turn into females as they grow. When examining a stack of slipper shells, the larger ones located on the bottom are the females, the small ones at the top are males and the ones in between the males are hermaphrodites. Although this sounds odd, sex reversal is very common in the marine environment.
While slipper shells are not typically sought after for the dinner table, they are in fact edible and are actually very tasty. Known as sweet meats in New England, they can be prepared many ways. I personally have had them raw, but have seen recipes in which slipper shells were used in chowders and stews.
Beachcombing nowadays is merely done for entertainment; collecting shells to be used as decorations, souvenirs of places visited, or as a hobby. Historically, coastal Native Americans in the New England region would turn their beachcombing finds into small decorative beads known as wampum. These beads, which were hand crafted from the deep purple sections of quahog (hard clam) shells and the white inner spiral of whelks, took a great deal of time and skill to produce.
These beads were strung on plant fibers or sinew where they were then used for a wide variety of purposes.
By creating intricate patterns, the wampum strands were used as a “written” form of communication, as jewelry and in religious ceremonies. Wampum was also extremely important in trade, and was the first known form of currency in America. Made from materials that could only be found on the coastline, wampum was traded to inland tribes for furs, flints and other necessities not found on the coast. When the first European colonists arrived in America, they too used wampum as a source of currency.
Finding purple pieces of clam shell or brightly colored jingle shells might not make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams, but the time spent in the outdoors of the North Fork, especially with family and friends, is priceless.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram @fishguyphotos