This year marks
the 50th anniversary of the Scotch bonnet as North
Carolina’s official state shell. For a state with one of the
longest coastlines on the Eastern Seaboard, it makes sense that it
was the first to have its own shell. Unfortunately, the lovely
gastropod — snail, that is — is notoriously difficult to find on
most of its beaches, except for the Outer Banks.
it’s no surprise that the bill to make the Scotch bonnet the state
shell was introduced in 1965 by an Outer Banker, Rep. Moncie Daniels,
who lived in Dare County.
promised a souvenir Scotch bonnet to any legislator who supported his
bill, he famously managed to find only two of the shells. After the
bill passed in May, a fellow lawmaker saved the day by somehow
locating a boxful of the shells to hand out.
inhabitants of the Gulf Stream, the Scotch bonnet is usually found on
nearby Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, where they’re pushed to the
shore by storms.
“I think it’s
fairly accurate to say that it is the most sought after shell on the
North Carolina beaches,” says John Timmerman, the chairman of the
Shell Club. “It’s a thrill to find one. If you
don’t find one shell except a Scotch bonnet, your day is made.”
works as an exhibit designer at the Cape
Fear Museum in Wilmington, says that Scotch bonnets
can be abundant from Cape Hatteras to Cape Lookout, but otherwise,
the rest of the state coast is pretty much out of luck. Although, he
adds, he did find one once at Fort Fisher after a hurricane and
another time on a Georgia beach.
The appeal is
not just because of the shells’ rarity. With orange and
yellow-brown plaid markings – that unfortunately fade – the
mollusk actually does look like it’s wearing a little bonnet.
Reminiscent of the traditional Scottish cap and plaid tartan, the
Scotch bonnet was named in honor of Scottish settlers in North
tropical animals and their shells are different than any other
shell,” Timmerman says. “There’s brilliant shading to them,
with bright orange spots. It’s a nice size – two to three inches.
You can marvel at it. You can drop it in your pocket.”
The snails that
inhabit the shells cannot survive cold weather, but they do just fine
in the toasty Gulf Stream off the Outer Banks. As grown-ups with
shells, they crawl on the ocean floor, eating sea urchins and sand
dollars — after deftly burning a hole in their shells with sulfuric
acid. Storms that churn up the offshore waters wash the snails onto
the beaches, where lucky barrier island beachcombers have been known
to find hundreds scattered amongst the storm detritus.
It was the N.C.
Shell Club, established in 1957, that initiated Daniels’ state
shell legislation. What’s not exactly clear is how the Scotch
bonnet was selected, although there was reportedly some reluctance to
designate a shell that hardly anyone in the state could find, hence
Daniels’ sweet-talking bribery.
“He was such
an ardent supporter of the Outer Banks,” says Daniels’ son,
Moncie “Punk” Daniels, a resident of Manteo. “He had such a
passion for Dare County and the Outer Banks beaches.”
By 1965, North
Carolina already had a state flower (dogwood, 1941), a state bird
(cardinal, 1943) and a state tree (longleaf pine, 1963). “And I
think that’s what inspired him,” Daniels says. “’Why not get
the Outer Banks involved and have a state shell?’”
As to finding
one, here’s a bit of advice from author Nancy Rhyne from her book,
-- “Your best bet for finding a Scotch bonnet is to search the sea
drift after storms or high winds. Finding a Scotch bonnet with its
special beauty moves collectors in a way many other shells do not.
Many Scotch bonnets are faded, but when the color is gone, the
sculpture lingers on.”
the shell’s grooves and ridges with its uniform square markings, as
well as the glazed inner lip and “thick and finely-notched” outer
happens to be one of the post-storm jackpots, even Outer Bankers
north of Hatteras rarely find Scotch bonnets, and if they do, they‘re
often in pieces. Although they range throughout the Caribbean, it’s
the proximity to the Gulf Stream that allows the Scotch bonnet to
land on North Carolina beaches at all. But it is still a coveted
shell beyond the Old North State, including on the Gulf Coast of
here on Sanibel Island, it is a very desirable shell,” says Jose H.
Leal, the science director and curator at the Bailey-Matthews
Shell Museum in Florida, which is promoted as the only
professional shell museum in the country.
bonnet is much smaller than Florida’s state shell, the horse conch.
Designated in 1969, that orange-colored conch shell can grow up to 24
Leal, a marine
biologist, says that only the junonia, another dashing gastropod, is
more sought-after on Sanibel than the bonnet. He agrees that much of
the appeal of North Carolina’s state shell lies in its handsome
markings and portable size.
“It has that
beautiful combination of sculpture and color pattern,” he says. “It
is kind of reticulated. It is like it’s finely-etched in both
And like any
other consumer, shellers are not immune to the powerful lure of
supply and demand when it comes to the Scotch bonnet.
“It really is
not easy to find," Leal says.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)