20 reasons oysters are awesome

O-Y-S-T-E-R! Happy National Oyster Day! There needs to be much love for the oyster. These creatures are delicious, sustainable, and help the environment. Maybe we need more than just one day to celebrate this bivalve? If you don’t believe me, here are over 20 reasons oysters are awesome:

  1. Oysters spawn during the summer months and therefore tend not to be as tasty. This is the epitome of the old wives’ tale on why “you shouldn’t eat oysters in months that don’t end in ‘R’.”
  2. Another reason this adage has prevailed is that oysters are much better when cold and do not taste that good when in the heat.
  3. Oysters can change their sex. They can produce both semen and eggs.
  4. Oysters have been known to live up to twenty years in captivity.
  5. When oyster larvae attach to a hard material, a vital part of their life cycle, they’re called “spat.” Two to three years later they are considered adults.
  6. The habitat of the Eastern American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) extend from Canada to Argentina.
  7. Even though there are countless (and delicious) varieties of oysters there are only five species. These species are the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), Kumamoto oyster, European flat oyster, American (i.e., Eastern) oyster, and the Olympia oyster. The shells of the five species are truly what sets these species apart (other than the geographic region they are most often found). The American is pretty familiar with its large size and comma shaped shell. The Olympians have a small, round, pale shell with lustrous coloring. The Kumamotos have a round, pale shell as well but not as much of a smooth shell. The European flat has fine ridges around its large, straight shell, and the Pacific are small with wavy shells. In fact, the same type of oyster can taste different contingent on where it was raised.IMG_7313
  8. Sometimes a bacteria that commonly grows along coastal environments where oysters are found known as Vibrio vulnificus can infect the oysters. This would leave to that “bad oyster” that might make you sick.
  9. One very common misunderstanding of the oyster is that they are an aphrodisiac. However, it’s really just their significant amount of zinc. Zinc is a mineral that will boost your energy and therefore can boost your sex drive. Other benefits of zinc are that skin will improve and make your bones stronger.
  10. Oysters also have immense amounts of omega-3-fatty acids which can sharpen your memory, lower levels of depression and heart disease, as well as a host of other benefits.
  11. Oysters also have lots of vitamin A, C, D and B-12.
  12. Even though Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” has Aphrodite rising from the sea on a scallop shell legend has it that the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, emerged from the sea in an oyster shell.
  13. In the 17th century, New York City was covered in oyster beds and were very much enjoyed by the native Lenape Indians. Eventually, by the 19th century, the oysters were so plentiful that raw oysters could be purchased from the street vendors. There was even oyster saloons with all sorts of methods for consuming oysters.
  14. Most pearls found in jewelry are from clams and mussels – not oysters. Although, there are also actual pearl oysters which are from a different family of bivalves.
  15. Oyster mushrooms and black salsify, also called “vegetable oyster”, actually taste like oysters.
  16. Oysters are a crucial member to the aquatic communities. Not only do they gobble up lots of algae (think of your back bay becoming a dirty fish tank without them), but they are crucial as natural filter feeders. Oysters filter approximately 30 to 50 gallons of water a day removing excess nutrients and allowing shrimp, clams, crabs, and snails to flourish. The cleaner water also enables more seagrass to grow creating more habitat for fish.
  17. Oysters grow on top of one another as an oyster reef. These huge substrates are imperative for soil erosion and shoreline stabilization.Oyster_human_impact_diagram_SM_noaa
  18. If you bring home oysters for your next bake be sure to recycle the shells close to home. The shells of the oysters are extremely rich in calcium and can help balance the pH of the soil as well as add nutrients to your garden. Fertilizer fresh from the sea!
  19. Oyster farms, unlike other types of fish farming, can greatly enhance the health of nearby waterways. Not only do they tend to munch on pollution (yes, they’ve been known to help out Big Oil), but if the oyster were to escape it isn’t in danger of becoming an exotic species.
  20. While it’s all well and good that farmed oysters can do a lot to help water quality … natural oysters reefs are just as vital. Unfortunately, 85% of the global oyster reef population has been lost.
  21. In the Chesapeake Bay an estimated 2,600 acres of oyster beds are lost each year because of runoff and silt. On the Pacific coast invasive crabs and snails are destroying natural oyster beds.
  22. Not only are oyster reefs vanishing, but the ones that remain are just not as strong due to ocean acidification (i.e., climate change for the sea).
  23. There are many organizations along the Atlantic coast that are looking for volunteers to help adopt and raise oysters. If you don’t live on the water volunteers are still urged to build oyster reef substrates or oysters mats.

Resources: Food Republic, NOAA – Cheasapeake Bay Office, Organic Life, Oyster Recovery Partnership.

Molly Malone’s cockles and mussels

On the way home from work yesterday I had a driveway moment and could not stop listening to a story on All Things Considered on the benefits of forgoing the pub this Sunday and instead preparing some heartwarming Irish food at home to celebrate Erin go bragh. The story featured a recipe – Molly Malone’s Cockle and Mussel Chowder – from Rachel Allen, a popular Irish TV Chef, and I got to thinking on how I think it’s time to briefly feature those bivalves on Beach Chair Scientist! Here are 5 facts about cockles and mussels so you can have some fodder if you like to pretend to be the host of a show while cooking for your family.


Cockle shells

Cockle shells

  1. There are more than 200 species of cockles.
  2. Cockles have a distinct rounded, heart-shaped shell with ribs that fan out through the length of the shell (they’re actually evenly spaced on the exterior of the shell).
  3. Cockles prefer intertidal areas with sand and mud beaches and depths up to 60 feet. Cockles are distributed world-wide, but the common cockle (Cerastoderma edule) is found widely distributed around the coastlines of Northern Europe (extending west to Ireland, the Barents Sea in the north, Norway in the east, and as far south as Senegal).
  4. Cockles move with a powerful muscular foot. They’ve even been witnessed springing with this strong foot on the bottom of the ocean floor.
  5. Cockles are not important commercially.



Mussel shells

  1. Mussels have wedged-shaped, asymmetrical shell that is longer than wide. They’re typically dark blue, blackish, or brown, while the interior is silvery and somewhat nacreous.
  2. Mussels are filter feeders and feed on plankton and other microscopic, free-floating sea creatures in seawater.
  3. Mussels provide shelter and protection from heat, desiccation, and predators for many smaller marine organisms.
  4. According to Wired, “Chemists recently made prototype bandages with an inkjet printer filled with adhesive proteins taken from mussels, whose remarkable “feet” — a tangle of fibers that anchor them to rocks — have made them the most widely studied specialist in marine clinging”.
  5. 90% of the world’s mussels are cultured, with the major producers being China, Spain, Italy, Thailand, France, and New Zealand. Don’t fret, the U.S. has tough regulations on its imports of mussels.

Click here for the lyrics to the Irish song Cockles and Mussels, or Molly Malone. Erin go bragh!

Jingle shells, jingle shells, jingle all the way

Oh, you know it’s stuck in your head. If not the Christmas carol, than the image of the beautiful shell that leaves a twinkle in the sand as you walk along the shoreline. Many people assume jingle shells are juvenile oysters because they’re often attached to them. But, jingle shells are their very own species known as Anomia simplex. Here are 10 facts for you to better get to know this treasured beachcomber’s find.

1. Jingle shells have thin, translucent shell halves that look like frosted nail polish.
2. Jingle shells have also been nicknamed “Mermaid’s Toenails”, “Saddle Oyster”, or  “gold shell”.
3. Jingle shells appear all year and are found in shallow waters, beaches, oyster beds, and mollusk shells as far north as the coast of Nova Scotia, and all the way down south to Brazil.
4. The jingle shell is a bivalve mollusk, similar to mussels, oysters, and scallops, which all have two separate shells or “valves”. The upper valve is rounded and movable. The lower valve is typically flat and forms to the object which it is attached. It has a hole in the top where tufts of filament, the animal’s byssal threads, grow out to attach it to another surface (i.e., Jingle shells are epifaunal just like bromeliads).
5. The raw meat of the jingle shell is sharply bitter to the taste.
6. The jingle shell can reach up to 1-3 inches.
7. The lower valve of the jingle shell remains white, while the upper valve ranges from shiny lemon yellow, golden, brownish, silvery black, or pale buff. The shiny iridescence of the jingle shell is retained even after death.
8. Jingle shells take in water and filter nutritious plankton and other food through ciliated gills.
9. Jingle shells were given their common name because of the sound they make when strung together. Beachcombers often use jingle shells to make jewelry or wind chimes. Julia Ellen Rogers noted in her 1931 The Shell Book that “Pretty lampshades are made by piercing the valves of jingle shells near the hinge and stringing them, then attaching the strands so as to fit over the outside of a plain glass or porcelain shade, whose brightness is pleasantly mellowed by the network of shells”.
10. Fishermen have been known to disperse jingle shells over oyster beds in a process known as “shelling” to create a habitat for oysters can settle.




Getting to know three … Bivalve edition

Ever know instinctively that some animals are ‘related’ and just can’t pinpoint their similarities? On the third day of every month I explain three features that are common among three animals of a certain group. Of course, generally each group has more than three representatives and even  many more similarities and then even more differences, but I am going to choose three similarities that link threes to keep it simplified. This month is focused the mussel, scallop, and clam. These three animals are all part of the bivalve group which is the second largest group of mollusks. The largest group of mollusks are the gastropods. Mollusks are well-known for their soft, unsegmented bodies and shell covering (although cephalopods do not have this feature). Check out the image below to learn what the featured animals all have in common.




Colorful coquina clams sign of healthy beach

Those tiny, colorful clams with two siphons poking our of their shells that emerge quickly once the waves wash gently ashore are known as coquina (ko-KEE-nah) clams. These bivalves rarely exceed an inch long and are indicators of a healthy beach. If eroding beaches are constantly being renourished, coquina clams, as well as other sand dwelling invertebrates (i.e., mole crabs), could become buried under the extra sediment. Many beaches have to be renourished because the natural supply of sand from rivers and other sources from the mountains have been impeded by dams and reservoirs. Coquina clams can usually recover their populations if a beach has not been renourished in a year or two.

They tend to feast upon single-celled detritus or algae. Fish, shorebirds, and humans tend to feast upon them. That’s right, coquina clams are found around the world and are enjoyed steamed with butter or even as ‘the basis for a great potato puree‘. In Australia there is a commercial fishery for the meat (God help those processors).

In Florida, you can visit one of my favorite places, Blowing Rocks Preserve, and see the coquina rock outcrop. The coquina rock is a soft rock that is made up of the coquina clam shells (as well as other materials). But, what makes this rock outcrop so unique is that it is part of the largest section rock, known as the Anastasia Formation, from the Pleistocene epoch (2.576 million years ago).

New ‘marine life encyclopedia’ launched

I think there might be another great bookmark to add to your ocean facts files! Please spend some time reviewing this great new resource, a marine life encyclopedia, compiled by Oceana. Over 500 creatures, places, and concepts can be explored. The pictures are bright and colorful and the information is up-to-date and easy to digest. It seems fantastic if you want a quick answer to a question.

Even if you think you know all the answers, test yourself with this Ocean IQ quiz!

The content on the marine life encyclopedia site has been licensed to Dorling Kindersley, one of the world’s leading educational publishers.

D.C. embraces giant quahogs!

A few days ago the Washington Post announced that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is now home to 10 giant clams of the species Tridacna crocea. You may think the National Zoo is a peculiar place for clams especially since the National Aquarium now has a branch in D.C., however the clams are suitably placed in the invertebrate exhibit and I highly recommend you spend time there if you ever make it to the National Zoo. It is one of the quieter exhibits, housed in air conditioning (what’s not to love about that?), and has an exhibit for chambered nautilus, a BCS species favorite.

With all that being said, it seems as though if you want to learn about T. crocea, smallest of all the giant clams species, you’ll have to come to D.C. (or simply read the article in the Post linked above)!

So, I am going to take this opportunity to brief you on a real giant clam. This posts features the largest and most elaborately colored of all the giant clam species, Tridacna gigas (pictured right). This being the largest of all living bivalves, T. gigas holds it own at a whooping 500 lbs, 3 ft 10 in length and 30 in wide. The average male American black bear is about that size. At 500 lbs, it’s no wonder they cannot shut their two shells together (It’s like when I to pack for a weekend vacation).

These hermaphrodites, found in the Indo-Pacific, are planktonic when young and sessile as adults. The diet of these placid creatures is algae as they are filter feeders.

There is concern among conservationists that T. gigas is being exploited as they are harvested for food (a delicacy in Japan) and is a popular acquisition in the aquarium trade.

I wonder what creature would win if pitted against each other: the giant clam, T. gigas, or the largest sea urchin, Sperosoma giganteum? Maybe that deserves further thought in a future post.
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Image (c) manandmollusc.net.

Happy as a clam

Lately everyone has been asking me how the junior Beach Chair Scientist is doing and I often find myself saying, “Oh! She’s as happy as a clam!” It occurred to me that I didn’t fully understand the expression since clams are not known to smile. I did some research and found out that the phrase originates from parts of New England where clams are a plenty. Also, the phrase is better understood in its entirety, “Happy as a clam at high water.” You see, at high tide clams can avoid there predators in the water so they are quite happy indeed! So next time someone says they are “happy as a clam” you can say … “did you know?” cause everyone loves that kind of person, right?

Image (c) civin.org

Test your knowledge: What am I?

I am a bivalve that grows in the Atlantic Ocean. I do have several species closely related to me that live in freshwater. I am very closely related to clams and oysters. I tend to grow to about 4 inches long. I live in colonies and attach to bulkheads, rope and rocks very easily. To do this I use a sticky protein, called byssus, that forms tough yellow fibers that harden in salt water. My inside is often pearly iridescent and my outside is a blueish black color. I use my gills to filter water to get food and oxygen which  I need to survive. I am very tasty steamed with garlic and butter.

Here are some pictures of me:

Images (c) top: maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com, middle and bottom: Beach Chair Scientist.

Why are mussels always found on pilings?

Well, it is important to mention that not all mussels are found on pilings. Mussels attach themselves to any type of hard substrate in the intertidal regions, including pilings. On pilings the top most mussels indicate the high tide line.

To go off on a random tangent, here is a yummy mussel recipe: http://allrecipes.com/HowTo/Cooking-Mussels/Detail.aspx

Do you have another great question? Check out www.beachchairscientist.com and let us know what you always ponder while digging your toes in the sand!