The Holy Ghost shell

To the beachcomber with a flair for romanticism, the most exciting find he may make is a Holy Ghost shell, more frequently called the sand dollar. To many, the cryptic markings on the shell of this relative of the starfish, sea cucumber and the sea urchin symbolize the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (not an earlier version of The Da Vinci Code).

On the top of the shell is what some say is an outline of an Easter lily. At the lily’s center is a five-pointed star that represents the star of Bethlehem. The five narrow openings signify the four nail holes and the spear wound Christ suffered at the crucifixion. When a sand dollar is broken, out will come five small bodies, supposedly having the shapes of doves. Some may say the bodies represent the angels that sang to the shepherds on the first Christmas morning.

All of this may be the reasons why jewelers and gift shop proprietors have turned untold numbers of sand dollars into paper dollars. They harden the shell, paint or tint it, electroplate it, or just give it a coat of clear lacquer, and sell it on a chain as a necklace or as earrings.

For snowbirds and others in the area who may have collected Holy Ghost shells from southern beaches, the following is presented as a guide as to how to prepare them: Sand dollars may be prepared easily to be displayed as souvenirs or as jewelry. The animal’s shell must be thoroughly dried, and the hair-like structures, which are actually tube feet used for locomotion, will fall off. The shell should be bleached in a mixture of three-fourths water and a quarter chlorine bleach, and then hardened. An excellent hardening agent may be formulated by mixing one part of Elmer’s Glue with two parts of water. Experienced shell collectors have found this mixture to be just as effective as commercial hardeners and much less expensive. The bleaching process is essential because if you attempt to go from drying to the hardening step, the specimen will darken, giving it a blotched, unattractive appearance.

Jewelers offer a variety of clasps, with which you can attach your sand dollar to a chain. With an eye to cutting expenses, you may remove a clasp from a piece of jewelry no longer in vogue. The clasp may be attached to the shell with any type of epoxy cement before any final coatings are applied. One of the easiest coatings is liquid plastic. This gives the shell a protective, high-gloss finish. If you wish to dye your “gem of the sea” before coating it, experiment with various tints and stains until you find the right combination. The sand dollar’s porous shell readily absorbs any liquid. I have found food dyes and even mercurochrome produce good results. In addition to being a nice display item, the Holy Ghost shell is guaranteed to be an effective ice breaker in getting a conversation started.

Sand dollars inhabit relatively warm seas and are quite plentiful on beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. They are the least expensive souvenirs to be found in gift and shell shops along the Gulf, but they are much more expensive in shops away from the seashore.

The animals live half buried in the sandy bottom but are capable of slow movement with the aid of thousands of so-called tube feet, which are hydraulically operated by an internal water vascular system. Alive, the sand dollar is a dull, light green, and the numerous tube feet projecting from the shell gives the impression the animal needs a shave. When dead ones are found washed upon the beach, they are usually light in color due to the bleaching action of the sun.

As unlikely as it may seem, sand dollars and their kin are the most advanced of all invertebrate animals (animals without backbones). Their early developmental stages strongly suggest to zoologists that they are closely related to vertebrate animals (with backbones), such as fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and many biologists believe they may, in fact, be the evolutionary ancestor of all higher animals.

Some may believe the religious interpretation of the markings on the Holy Ghost shell is a cryptic message denoting their importance in the world of life.

Who knows for sure, one way or the other?

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

Editor’s note: A portion of Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’s May 3-9, 2006, article, “The beauty and intrigue of the willow,” was inadvertantly deleted, changing the meaning of a paragraph in the article. The paragraph should have read as follows:

“There are about 350 different species of willows worldwide, all members of the family Salicaceae, genus Salix; scientific names given to this group of plants by the Swedish naturalist Linneaeus almost 500 years ago. About 25 species of willows are found in cooler, moist zones of North America. Some willows may reach a height of 50 feet, but those in the arctic, such as the dwarf willow, are quite small, reaching a height of only a few inches, though spreading profusely along the ground.”

The Rock River Times regrets the error.

From the May 10-16, 2006, issue

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