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Witness Post: Sand Dollars

Have you ever found a whole bleached-white sand dollar at your feet, without any dings or broken parts?  What a treasure they are!  The whole shells are a special treat to discover on beaches around the world.  Many families have collected them over the years or bought them in curios shops to take home as “keepsakes” from that trip to Sanibel Island or the Oregon Coast.

The first sand dollar I remember collecting was on St. Petersburg Beach in Florida.  A group of us had flown down from the Maryland headquarters to work with the Tampa office of TESSCO Technologies, and we were holding our “Top Gun Sales Training” sessions at the Hotel Don Cesar, nick-named Big Pink.  The movie, Top Gun, had recently been released (1986) and TESSCO’s President, Bob Barnhill, felt that with the appropriate guidance, any number of us could be the next Pete “Maverick” Mitchell on the TESSCO sales force.  For my daily routine, I ran the beaches in the morning, worked in the sales classes by day, and drank beer with the team at night.  One morning at low tide I spotted a greenish-gray disk in the tidal pools along the beach in front of our hotel.  It was a live sand dollar.

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The Don Cesar, St. Petersburg Beach, FL

Picking up the shell, it looked like a Spanish doubloon.  I carefully carried it into The Don Cesar and asked a member of the housekeeping staff how I could take it home.  “It will stink up your suitcase, Señor,” said the woman. “It is better to let it soak in bleach and water first, then let it dry.”  The woman gave me a few cap-fulls of bleach and a cigar ashtray and I soaked the shell, as she had instructed.  Within a day the sand dollar turned bright white and it made it home safely without breaking.  I kept that white memento on our library shelf for many years, until it got lost in our family’s cross-country move.

Distinctive Beach Lodgings

My wife, Tracy, is the President of Distinctive Beach Lodgings, and her company manages a collection of rental properties on the North Oregon Coast from Gearhart to Arch Cape.  We have marketed the lodgings together under a unique brand.  The name fits because the properties are boutique inns which have been renovated into very distinctive and comfortable beach lodgings.

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The other beach properties have logos that feature scallops, sun bathers, pineapples, and gardens, but the most memorable crustacean among our logos is the sand dollar.

Tracy and I have been the owners of these properties going back to 2004.  We have had some great property managers along the way, all of whom have loved living on the Coast.  There is one manager in particular, who told us about the End of the World.

The Anderson Family

Our Distinctive Beach Lodgings weekend manager, Lynnet Anderson, and her husband, Brian, have lived in the area for many years.  They love the water and the coast for all of the natural wonders they provide.  And more than most families they have witnessed the first-hand fury that comes from nature.  I would not call the Anderson’s storm watchers, but Lynnet is our weather vane for Coast Range snow or ice, lowland flooding, or whale migrations.  Brian loves to surf and he has gotten a fish-eyes view at whales, seals, salmon, sand dollars, and sharks.

Brian went surfing on Christmas Eve 2005.  He remembers the episode as if it happened yesterday, and with good reason.  He has a near-fatal encounter with a great white shark.  His distracting punch at the shark’s snout is testimony to how tough Brian is.  He has a surfer’s zeal for the ocean at any cost. The Portland TV news and the coastal Underwater Times covered the story of the local Seaside surfer who slugged a great white shark which was biting his leg off.[1]

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Though nearly eight years ago now, Brian often has nightmares about that day on the surfboard, but the bad dreams cannot keep him out of the water.  He still loves to be riding the extended waves, along with his son, Christian, in the natural beauty of Seaside’s Surfer Cove and spots further south on the Oregon Coast. The boys in the family all like to get in wet suits and challenge the weather and the tides.

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Christian and Brian Anderson

The End of the World

The town of Seaside is nearly cut in half by the Necanicum River, which flows west from Saddle Mountain.  You guessed it: the river’s source is from a mountain that looks like a horse saddle. The river flows west and then north through Seaside, until it ends to the west in the Pacific Ocean.  It’s mouth deposits water and pebbles that extends to a long, wide spit of sand between Seaside and Gearhart.

The Gearhart residents call the area on the north side of the Necanicum, “Little Beach,” while the Seasiders call their side “The End of the World.”  Now don’t get the Seaside name confused with any apocalyptic theories or death wishes; the name comes from the view that the residents have from the mouth of the Necanicum as it relentlessly flows into the ocean.

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View of the End of the World, Seaside, OR

The River is tidal all the way to Seaside proper and it is home to lots of wildlife and fresh water nutrients which feed the marine life in the region.  If you walk to the mouth of the Necanicum River, on the Seaside side, you will eventually come to the southwestern-most spit of sand.  Looking directly west from there, the ocean appears to stretch out forever.  Next stop?  Japan.

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Necanicum River, Seaside, OR circa 1910

The Necanicum River is named for the Clatsop Indian description, “ne-hay-ne-hum” which roughly translates as “the place where the Indian village stands by the stream.” Over the decades the river was named and renamed several times.  In 1805 it was named the Clatsop River, by William Clark, of Lewis & Clark fame.  It was later renamed Laddy Creek in honor of an early pioneer, William Laddy, who settled in the area and opened a hotel. The Necanicum River was once the fertile spawning ground for trout, steelhead, and native salmon.  As recently as the 1930’s the Nehalem River (closest major river south of the Necanicum) counted 150,000 Coho salmon in its gillnets.  Today both rivers only have counts of autumn spawning Coho in the hundreds, which appears to be the result of urbanization, farm run-off, and pollution along the Clatsop Plain.[2]

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Razor Clam digging at the End of the World

The Anderson’s have spotted lots of salmon, dug copious Razor clams, and they have seen a ton of sand dollars over the years.  Upon occasion Lynnet tells me they have spied thousands upon thousands of sand dollars, as they washed up at high tide in the Necanicum River estuary, located at The End of the World.  The sand dollars were whole and dead and available by the handful. Not being a biologist and it may be hard to determine exactly what causes these massive crustacean deaths, but they occur periodically.  I have not seen sand dollars by the thousands, but I have from time to time seen sand dollars by the hundreds rolling in the surf along Cannon Beach, Seaside and Gearhart beaches.

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View of Necanicum as it flows to the Pacific

Cashing Those Dollars

Tracy and I came across one such massive death of sand dollars on March 9, 2013.  It was our daughter, Kathleen’s 21st birthday and we celebrated with a morning run/walk along the beaches of Gearhart.  We spotted them everywhere!.  Scooping up the first 50, I put them in my hat.  After walking less than a quarter mile, we picked up about 100 more whole sand dollars.  In no time our arms were too full to carry any more.

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We saw Jeff, the Gearhart police patrol officer, walking with friends along the beach that day, and we were tempted to hide our loot; but when we saw the policeman’s companions picking up their fair share of the sand dollars, we realized that these are temporary gifts from God and not something to worry about stealing.  If we did not pick them up, they would be broken into pieces when the next tide came along.  We also thought it would be good to collect them, bleach them in the sun, and give them as commemorative gifts to our guests in Gearhart.  Sand dollars are, after all, the symbol of Distinctive Beach Lodgings.

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One other possible factor for our finding of so many whole sand dollars on the beaches of Gearhart may be because the beach is relatively vacant, yielding more whole sand dollars per person than the average beach.  It is easy to spot the broken ones on most beaches, but I especially love finding them with those five petals showing and no divots.  Whatever the reasons for the deaths, these are fascinating creatures that are worth investigating.

After collecting these sand dollars it occurred to me that there must be a reason for these other shellfish in the area breed in such abundance.  The Necanicum River may not be as “healthy” as it once was, but it may not be the pollution source that it once was either.  Somehow the ocean off the coast is rich in sand dollars, razor clams, harbor seals, and sea bass.  When you add in the other rivers and stream along the North Oregon Coast, like the Nehalem, and the Skipanon, that is a lot of fresh water entering the tidal pools!

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The phytoplankton in the waters of the Columbia and the Necanicum Rivers seems to be the perfect feeding source for the shells.  They grow in dense sand beds just offshore, and the area around the Necanicum River basin seems to have a larger-than-usual congregation of them. This is because of the nutrients in the area, which flow in great abundance from the mouth of the Columbia and Necanicum. This nutrient rich brackish water in turn feeds the phytoplankton and causes a greater population of those shell fish to thrive.  The large population of Razor clams and sand dollars are gifts from the sea for us mere mortals.[4]

According to Tiffany Boothe, a curator at the Seaside Aquarium, “Sand dollars are live animals and [they] are found worldwide.  There are many different species, each with their own unique characteristics…The outside of their shell is covered with millions of tiny spines which look like ‘fuzz’ or hair,” Boothe said. “These spines aid in the movement and feeding of the sand dollar.”[3]

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Bottom of a Sand Dollar, spines visible

Sea Biscuit

There are various names for the sand dollar around the world.  I believe we call them sand dollars in the US because they resemble the size and shape of a silver dollar.  Against the sandy beach, the bleached sand dollar is dramatically visible to the naked eye, and they are quickly scooped up by beach combers.  In other parts of the world these crustaceans are known as sea cookies, sea biscuits and snapper biscuits (New Zealand) or pansy shells (South Africa). In Spanish-speaking areas of the Americas, the sand dollar is most often known as galleta de mar (or sea cookie).[5]

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Sand Dollars – photo courtesy of The Seaside Aquarium

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Sea Biscuits – photos courtesy of fickr

The Legend of the Sand Dollar

There are a series of poems that have been written about the sand dollar over the centuries, with heavy Christian overtones.  The poems relate the shape, markings, and insides of a sand dollar to the life and death of Christ.  Several poems also talk about the teeth of the sand dollar, which is where the “doves”  of the dollar make divine reference.  I have copied one poem here (author unknown) to give you a flavor for them.

The Legend of the Sand Dollar

There’s a lovely little legend
that I would like to tell,
of the birth and death of Jesus,
found in this lowly shell.

If you examine closely,
you’ll see that you find here,

four nail holes and a fifth one,
made by a Roman’s spear.

On one side the Easter Lily,
its center is the star,
that appeared unto the shepherds
and led them from afar.

The Christmas Poinsettia

etched on the other side,
reminds us of His birthday,
our happy Christmastide.

Now break the center open,
and here you will release,
the five white doves awaiting,
to spread Good Will and Peace.

This simple little symbol,
Christ left for you and me,
to help us spread His Gospel,
through all Eternity.

Author Unknown

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What Are Sand Dollars?

Sand dollars (Echinarachnius parma) are ancient crustaceans that are related to sea cucumbers, star fish and sea urchins.  The early sand dollars appear in the fossil record to have lived in the oceans during the Jurassic Period along with other echinoids.  The first true sand dollar genus arose during the Paleocene Era, with more modern-looking groups of the genus emerging during the Eocene Period (55 to 40 million years ago). [6]

Many sea urchins have long spines that they use as defenses against their larger predators.  I think of sea urchins as the Hedgehog of the undersea world.  The sand dollar has spines as well, but theirs are more like small hair follicles (see photo above).  Sand dollars use their “hairs” to dig into the sand and to push the phytoplankton to its mouth.  Its mouth consists of 5 sharp teeth, which it uses to break down the phytoplankton into digestible pieces.  The teeth, when dried and taken out of the sand dollar shell, resemble white chevrons.   Some people say they are five birds and others refer to them as “doves.” [7]  I will come back to these doves later.

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Five “Doves” from the Sand Dollar

The outside skeleton of the sand dollar is called a test.  The test consists of calcium carbonate plates which are arranged in a fivefold radial pattern.  The living animal in the test has a velvet-textured skin of spines, as was mentioned above.  The velvety spines appear in a variety of colors from the rainbow: green, blue, indigo, violet.  Throw red and orange in there and you have the full spectrum of visible light.  All sand dollars around the world, no matter the species, bleach white in the sunlight. [8]

Evolutionarily the sand dollar has two adaptive characteristics that I find interesting. One is the bilateral symmetry the other is its ability to burrow into the sand, rather than simply feeding on the surface.  The other characteristic is the petal-like, bilateral symmetry of the crustacean.  It has five paired rows of holes or pores.  The pores are perforated in order for there to be a bodily gas exchange in the water.  It sounds a bit to me like the way a sand dollar farts, but then again, I am a scatological youth at heart. [9]

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Sand dollar digging in the sand

Five Points

Unlike the sea urchin, the body of the sand dollar has it’s anus at the back, rather than at the top of the test, giving it five lobed sections of the shell.  The pattern indeed looks like a poinsettia, with its five red leaves in it typical pattern. Five petal figures, five overlapping plates, five teeth — there is an amazing pattern that emerges, even though the parts are not uniform. The bilateral symmetry is endlessly fun to examine.

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Tales of Aristotle’s Lantern

A variety of imaginative associations have been made by idle beachcombers who have come  across the bleached skeletons of dead sand dollars. The “tales of the tests” and other folklore say that the sand dollar represents a Mermaids lost or currency from people drowned on the Island of Atlantis.  And similar to the Sand Dollar Poems, Christian missionaries over the centuries found plenty of symbolism in the fivefold radial patterns and dove-shaped teeth to tantalize natives.[10]

Oh, yes, back to those “doves”, ah, I mean teeth.  The teeth of sea urchins are called ‘Aristotle’s lantern’ because in addition to being a prolific philosopher, Aristotle wrote extensively about animals.  He also studied the sea urchin and wrote about their five toothed mouths. He wrote, “In reality the mouth-apparatus of the urchin is continuous from one end to the other, but to outward appearance it is not so, but looks like a horn lantern with the panes of horn left out.” [12] From that written description to this day, the teeth of the urchin have been called Aristotle’s lantern, and along with the sea urchin’s outer shell, they have a very distinctive pattern.  The same tooth pattern is found most distinctly in the keyhole sand dollar, however it is visible in all sand dollars.[11]

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Aristotle’s Lantern

I re-discovered the smelly odor that emanates from the sand dollars, when I cracked a recently deceased one in half in Gearhart.  Once fully opened, it revealed, amidst the black intestinal goo, its five teeth. The distinctive appearance of Aristotle’s Lantern was lying flat rather than in a raised format.  These “doves” were wrapped together, but easily separated and took flight amidst the crumbling shell.  The smell of the decaying insides was putrid, and I knew to keep them outside while the sun bleached them and the air flowed around.  It is best to let them dry in peace.

In August, 2013 the Anguiano girls, as part of Camp A, helped transform the sand dollars into Christmas ornaments for us to share with guests as mementos from their time at the Gearhart Ocean Inn.  We are even considering sending some dollars we may collect to the local hospital, which has been a great charity for the Anguiano Family and other Seaside residents over the years.  The fun was in the design and making!

sand dollarAnguiano Artists enjoying their art work

Thank you, housekeeping staff from the Don Cesar Hotel for that important tip on handling of sand dollars, which I now consider loose change on the beach!

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