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Imagination on Display

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002
[Times photo: Scott Keller]
Here is an assortment of shells that can be found on Suncoast beaches: from top, cat’s eye, calico scallop, horse conch, lightning whelk, Florida fighting conch, junonia.

ST. PETE BEACH -- On a trip to Florida 50 years ago, Robert Lipe found a seashell and it changed his life.

"After that, all I wanted to do was look for shells," said the 65-year-old collector. "So my father bought me a book on shells, which I think he eventually grew to regret."

Like most conchologists, as shell collectors prefer to be called, Lipe developed a passion for one particular type of mollusk.

"It is called a marginella," he said. "Over the years I have found about 350 different kinds, of which about 50 still have not been named."

Mollusks are divided into seven classes, two of which are seldom seen outside of museums.

Of the remaining five classes, the Polyplacophora, also known as chitons, have shells that consist of eight overlapping plates.

"Children think they are turtle shells," said Lipe, who owns the Shell Store on St. Pete Beach. "They are always surprised to find that they are mollusks."

Scaphapods, also known as tusk shells, are tubular-shaped shells with approximately 350 species. The cephalopods, which include the octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus, are marine predators known for their intelligence.

Gastropods, also known as single-valved shells, are among the most numerous mollusks, with 60,000 species. The bivalves, which include scallops and clams, are probably the most easily recognizable seashell.

The word mollusk comes from the Latin mollis, which means soft. The word malacology, the study of mollusks, comes from the Greek word for soft, malakos.

Shells rank second only to postage stamps when it comes to the most popular items to collect. Nobody knows for sure how many species of mollusk there are, but depending on whom you talk to, the number falls between 50,000 and 200,000.

The biggest marine snail, the Australian Trumpet, can grow to more than 30 inches. The largest American snail, the Horse Conch, is more than 2 feet long. But the biggest mollusk is the giant clam, Tridacna gigas, which can measure 55 inches across.

Mollusks fall into two basic categories: the grazers and the carnivores.

"The carnivores will eat the grazers and even other carnivores," Lipe said. "That is why some shells are more rare than others."

Lipe said the best time to look for shells is after a storm. He prefers a new moon or full moon, because that is when the tides are the most extreme. The beaches of Pinellas County provide their share of shells, but Lipe said it is important to check local regulations before collecting.

"The state and county parks have their own rules, so do some of the local governments," he said. In some cases, when gathering live shells, a saltwater fishing license may be required.

Melanie Metcalfe runs shell collecting clinics and leads fields trips at Honeymoon Island State Park. She has a few words of advice for the beginner:

"Remember that everything is precious," she said. "Everything is a treasure."

Metcalfe said the best collectors are usually children.

"If you know a 7 or 8 year old, take them to the beach," she said. "Tell them to go find five 'dish-shaped" shells, and five that are spirals, then sit back in your chair and wait."

Metcalfe said most enterprising children will find at least one rare shell.

"They always come back with something super," she said. "The little collectors are usually the best ones."

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