And the Other Prize Was………

…………. a Venus Vase, gift of Peter Dance.  Just over a year ago a volunteer from the Sheringham Preservation Society sent me a photo of a bizarre object.  It was an exhibit on display in their Shell Gallery and by their kind permission I have included the image in my slideshow.  (Personally, I think the single unadorned structure is so beautiful as a simple funnel that it needs no embellishment by being mounted in sextuplicate on a Pecten shell to form a ‘candlelabra’!  I was completely foxed and could hardly believe the object was biological in nature (apart from the scallop shell base).  I forwarded the photo to Peter who emailed me right back to tell me exactly what the object was, and with the offer to give an example he owned, to me.  I accepted with pleasure.

Also known as a Venus’ Flower Basket the object is the skeleton of an Hexactinellid sponge, the skeleton, or test, being made of siliceous spicules (hence their name Glass Sponges).  Glass sponges are relatively uncommon and are mostly found at depths from 450 to 900 metres.  They are found in all oceans of the world, although they are particularly common in Antarctic waters.  They are funnel-shaped animals, ranging from 10 to 30 centimetres in height, with sturdy lattice-like internal skeletons made up of fused spicules of silica. The body is relatively symmetrical, with a large central cavity that, in many species, opens to the outside through a sieve formed from the skeleton.

Being deep water animals relatively few people have seen or studied glass sponges.  An exception is the “Venus’s Flower Basket” (Euplectella aspergillum).   In some Asian cultures, such as Japan, these sponges are given as marriage good luck charms – rather like horseshoes.  Often this species of sponge has two tiny shrimps (always a male and a female) living, symbiotically, inside the sponge’s body cavity. They swim in as larvae and are then trapped and mature inside the sponge’s mesh-like tissues. They would appear to be perfectly happy though, as they feed off the filtered food debris left by the sponge!  Any young can escape from the sponge as they are small enough to swim through the mesh of the sponge’s tissue and can move to find their own sponge ‘des res’.  If you peer through the mesh on my example, you can see the exoskeletal crustacean debris of its former occupants.

Many people may well have encountered the cleaned and dried skeletons of these sponges in an art class, or seen them in a Victorian glass dome display, as they have always been popular for their delicate beauty. Mine sits alongside other fragile marine curiosities, such as the Paper Nautilus, in a conchological vitrine.

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A Golden Opportunity

I’ve been collecting seashells since I was five years old, or thereabouts. The three years I spent in Hong Kong between the ages of 6 and 9 provided frequent opportunities to glean treasures from the beaches. My father worked in the dockyard on Hong Kong and took a launch across the narrow waterway that separates the island from the mainland. We lived in a verandahed two-storey house near the water frontage in the dockyard in Kowloon. My primary schooling was a morning affair; in the afternoons I was bussed with other children of Services’ families to spend time on local beaches…….. Silverstrand, Bays with the names Deepwater, Clearwater, Big Wave.

There must be many children who pick shells up from beaches and take them home. The fate of most of these shells must surely be File 13. Luckily my mother kept our shells, stored them in chocolate boxes, and these boxes found their way back to England when we returned to resume the remainder of my childhood in north London.

Many years later I found myself, as a young mother, cooped up in our house in Godalming with three sick children. The month was February and each of the 3 children had its own brand of winter virus: ear-infection, asthma, head-cold. In those days – late 1970s-’80s – we kept poorly children indoors for the duration of a fever.

My mother had recently passed the choc boxes of shells to me after an attic clear-out. I also had two rough wooden trays – relics of the full size Brie cheese we had bought for a Christmas party. The four of us sorted, paired, grouped, and then matched the shells like with like. We arranged them in the circular trays and when the children were well enough we went to the library and borrowed a book to name the shells. In the back of the book were the details of a shell-fanciers’ organisation; a learned society which invited membership and held meetings at the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road. I joined.

Thirty years later, along the trail of a journey of discovery which never palls, I have a network of contacts in Conchology – an unlikely community, in many ways, of friends, colleagues, acquaintances who share a common fascination for the World of the Shell.

Many shells have a certain myth, mystique or anecdote that surrounds them and this holds true for the Golden Cowry. It is a marine snail in the family Cypraeidae named for its brilliant orange shell. It is among the largest of the world’s 250 known cowry species, reaching four inches (ten centimeters) in length.

Nocturnal and reclusive, these molluscs spend most of their lives hiding under rocks in the cracks and crevices of reefs in the South Pacific, emerging at night to feed on sponges and algae. Golden cowries are egg-shaped with a flat base and a narrow opening. Like other cowries, their shells are smooth and highly polished. They protect their glossy finish by wrapping their brightly coloured mantle lobes almost completely around their shells when they move. The mantle also secretes a substance which constantly renews the surface patina.

Golden cowry shells have been used as currency and religious symbols throughout the South Pacific. On the island of Fiji, they were worn on a necklace by a chieftain as a symbol of status and rank. For this reason they have been highly sought after and specimens have, until relatively recently, exchanged hands for high prices. Golden cowries are easier to find in the wild, which has reduced the price and brought less than perfect specimens down to a budget price. For less than the cost of a couple of pints of beer I am able to bring a Golden Cowry to Winterborne Kingston.