On the gorgeous beaches of the Outer Banks, scallops can be found scattered along the shoreline in abundance from Corolla to Ocracoke. Scallops shells can be one of the most colorful shells, and there are a variety of species that shell collectors can search for to brighten their collections. The scallop animal inside the shell has some interesting features in its tiny yet complex body, although beachcombers do not tend to find the scallop alive, thankfully. For decades, the scallop has been caught in the ocean and sounds of Hatteras Island, as well as globally, for human consumption, both privately and commercially.
Scallop seashells are bivalves, which means they have a two-part shell that is connected at a hinge. At the hinge are wings, or ears which, beachcombers often find missing on the seashells they collect from the tideline. The scallop seashells are fan shaped and, on most species, both halves are equally cupped. I say most, because the Ravenel scallop is flat on one half and very cupped on the other. Half of the cupped shell lays under the sand, and the other half rests above the surface of the seafloor while the animal eats and awaits its escape from the ever-threating predators.
Like most tiny creatures of the sea, scallops have many predators, like crabs and fish, but its number one enemy is the very relentless sea star or starfish. The starfish attaches itself to the scallop, wraps its arms around it, and begins to consume the scallop. There is very little the scallop can do to escape once the sea star attaches itself.
However, unlike most bivalves, scallops can swim. They can shoot out of the sand in tiny zigzag pulses through water to escape predators. They also have dozens of eyes that sense changes in light, which usually means that a predator is near. Certain species of scallops have hundreds of tiny blue eyes that go all the way around the scallop’s body between the two halves. The scallop uses its eyes to sense the shadows created by the movement of a predator, and the scallop reacts by clapping its two shells together, which causes them to swim away to find another hiding spot.
Scallops have a very complex body consisting of muscular, nervous, reproductive and digestive systems, but lack a brain. They eat plankton by filtering water through their intricate bodies. Some scallops can sense changes in the water through their systems, and use these changes as a warning sign that a predator is near.
Seashells get their coloring from pigments in the food that they eat, and so scallops get their coloring from the plankton they digest. The Atlantic calico scallop shell is often found with bold stripes of color, ranging from a spectrum of reds and purples to sometimes yellows and oranges. The colorful stripes can sometimes appear like blurred dotted lines, but mostly, they are found in zigzagging pattern along the shell. The bold colors on the scallop are usually found on the side of the shell that lives above the surface of the seafloor. Conversely, the other side of the shell that lives beneath the surface is normally whiteish, with a dash of red or purple near the hinge.
Very similar to the calico scallop is the Atlantic bay scallop, which lives only in the sound, not in the ocean. The easiest way to tell the difference in these two scallops is that the calico scallop is colorful all over, and the bay scallop only shows color near its hinge, leaving the remaining part of the shell white.
Another way to tell the difference between these two types of scallops is that the Atlantic calico scallop has about 20 radial ribs that are roughed up by growth lines, and the Atlantic bay has 15 to 22 smooth ribs.
The Lions Paw scallop, the largest of the scallop group, is often on a beachcomber’s bucket list of treasures to find. They were once common seashells to find along the shores of the Outer Banks but over fishing of them in the past drastically reduced their numbers. So, when a beachcomber finds one, it usually becomes a “top-shell” keeper shell quickly. The lions paw scallop is big and heavy, sometimes measuring larger than 4 inches. It can be found in a range of colors, from black or brown to bold reds or oranges.
On the beaches of Hatteras Island, scallop shells that lived thousands and sometimes millions of years ago can be found. The ever-shifting sands of the Outer Banks created by the sometimes violent currants out at sea reshape the sand constantly. Sometimes, that sand has fossil shells in them, and often there is an abundance of scallop shells. I have seen pikes of shells 2 inches deep and 15 feet wide full mainly of scallops shells. These shells are often dark grey or black, and are yet another specimen to add to a beachcomber’s shell collection.
Scallop seashells are very popular for artists and crafters, maybe in part due to their abundance, but also because of their beautiful display of colors. There is a variety of videos out there of crafty things to create with scallop shells, not to mention the thousands of recipes that appear from a Google search. There are also local recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation surrounding this popular and tiny creature.
So, whether you are interested in the scallop for its shell, its meat, or both, thankfully, scallops will continue to be a part of the world surrounding the Outer Banks.