Friday, May 4, 2012

Pretty Little Carnivores

Living on the edge of an ocean means living in what can be described as a hyper-active environment, a setting of ever-shifting adjustments to wind, water, light and weather. Adding to the mix the interaction of living elements that color their coastal habitat insures that the faithful observer can never take for granted the scene outside his windows. With two years experience in the beach bum life, one would like to say that awareness of even the small things going on ‘out there’ are by now familiar. But there’s always something new that in some cases is not new at all, only previously overlooked. 

I have by now either wandered, trudged or sloshed my way through almost 2,000 miles of Florida beach, by turn attentive, distracted or curious, and it seems fair to say that I’ve seen a good portion of what goes on there. What exhilarates me is a new discovery just when I think I’ve seen it all. That happened on Thursday and for at least a couple of hours I lost myself in the briny schemes of a sea snail. Hard to count the shells either turned over or picked up in my walks, and many times a new find has brought a whoop of joy. But there are times too when it seems little more than hot, dry sand.

Normally, a pair of Reeboks and a path above the waterline make for the best walk. Something on Thursday morning made me forego the shoes and set a path in the sweep of surf, the water covering at least my feet most of the time. Wave action during the night had created unusual pools and sandbars and a lapse of attention once or twice sent me splashing in water up to my calves, but all of it was refreshing. Before long I came upon something burrowing into the wet sand, its hind parts just disappearing beneath the surface. Stopping for a minute to watch, I was surprised by a tiny white, elongated snout poking out of the sand and waving about like a flexible periscope. I dug the small creature up and saw it was a gooey thing in a pretty cylindrical shell, gray with brown markings. In the space of ten minutes I spotted four others pushing their way through the sand and leaving a curling trough-like trail behind. How could I have never noticed these curious creatures before?

The Oliva sayana, or lettered olive, is a species of small predatory sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk that lives in surf line waters, on shallow or semi-exposed sand flats from North Carolina to Florida and the Gulf states of North America as far as Louisiana and Texas. It is also found in Mexico along the Yucatán coast, and may also be seen in Brazil. It is a carnivore, capturing bivalves (clams and mussels) and small crustaceans with its foot and taking them below the sand’s surface to digest.

The name ‘lettered olive’ comes from its dark surface markings that resemble letters. Because of their beauty, early Native Americans as well as colonists made jewelry from the shells, and possibly for the same reason it is the state shell of South Carolina. The shell is smooth, shiny and cylindrical with only the rear portion having whorls or coils. A narrow opening extends almost the length of the shell, continuing around the bottom. 

Humbling to think that this small beauty has been out there under my feet for so long without any notice from me. Hate to think that my powers of observation are becoming slightly jaded.


  1. That's amazing! I have found dozens of those shells at a time at Myrtle Beach, but never with the critter still inside. Thanks for giving me a new insight into these beauties -- it'll certainly change my perspective when I'm there in July.

  2. I would have imagined that having lived on the ocean now for 2 years and 4 days that you would have seen it all, but God has created nature so that we have new wonders every day. Up here in our summer hideaway in N.C. we have but to look anywhere around us and see something new each day. This morning it was a pretty little white squirrel playing beneath our deck and he seemed to be having a blast hiding in the dry leaves on the ground and then coming up and running through them.

  3. Yeah, but can you put them in a jambalaya?
    Remember, Saturday night we'll see the Super Moon, the biggest one of the year. It should be spectacular on the ocean.

  4. Always glad to see a post on the beach environs of Florida. Like all your posts, always delightful and filled with interesting facts. Although not on a pond in a cabin built by hand but in a condo by the sea, you are carrying on in your own way the wonderful art of Nature Writing. Bravo.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America