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The magnificent shell of Spondylus regius

When I was a child, I had a shell collection.  Some of my shells were ordinary things which I picked up on the beach. Others were handsome store-bought shells which were given to me as presents.  The most beautiful shells which I had were gifts from my grandparents–world-travelers who had lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia as the cold war played out and colonialism ended.  They gave me my favorite shell, a beautiful red spiny oyster shell which I kept on my desk wherever I moved (until it was destroyed, out of spite, by my first lover). Humankind’s fascination with the spiny oyster goes back a long way.  To add to the Ferrebeekeeper mollusk thread, here are some pictures and facts about the Spondylidae family (aka the thorny oysters or spiny oysters).  These bivalve mollusks are relatives to the scallops, but, like the oysters, they cement themselves to one location.  Filter feeders of the reef, all of the various species of Spondylus have ball and socket hinges (whereas most bivalves have toothed hinges).  Live Spondylus shellfish are like tiny reefs in their own right supporting a rich community of algaes, hydroids, tubeworms, and other invertebrates on their spiny shells.

A living Spondylus varius on a coral reef

To quote CoralMorphologic which films amazing close-up videos of invertebrates and is the source of the thorny oyster eyes photo below, “Unlike most shallow-water oyster species, the thorny oyster is a solitary creature that lives permanently cemented to the deeper coral reef.  Its fleshy mantle is adorned with sepia-toned psychedelic camouflage that can vary widely from one individual to the next.   The rim of the mantle is lined with dozens of eyes that stare out into the depths.  These eyes are quite simple, only detecting changes in light that might suggest an incoming predator.  If a threat is detected, the oyster will quickly snap its two shells together, sealing the animal inside with its two powerful adductor muscles.”

Spondylus eyes seen close-up (a screen capture from an amazing CoralMorphologic video)

The desire to collect spiny oysters is much older than civilization.  Bangles made of the shells and were found in Mediterranean archaeological excavations dating from the Mesolithic period.  Ornaments made from the shells were found in the Varna necropolis, the burial ground of the the Eneolithic Varna culture located in what is today Bulgaria.  Almost 7000 years ago the people of central Europe were trading something for Spondylus shells from the Aegean.  That was before Eridu raised up from the mud and civilization got rolling in earnest.  Apparently one could trade spiny oyster shells for goods and services before you could buy a beer!

The Moche society which flourished in Ecuador and Northern Peru from 100 AD – 800 AD, made the most extensive ritual use of  Spondylus shells in their ceremonies and art.  Spondylus shells (and vessels shaped like them) were believed to have held the blood obtained from ritual human sacrifice and torture.  Not only did the Moche worship the sea and the creatures therein, one of their principal deities was a spider/crab who thrived on blood sacrifice.  The shape and color of the spiny oyster shell seem to have made the shells a favorite material for votive offerings and grave goods for that formidable people.

The head of a Moche Deity (Gold with carved Spondylus shell teeth)

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