Lettered Olive Shell (Oliva sayana Ravenel, 1834)

Lettered Olive Shell
Oliva sayana Ravenel, 1834

Lettered Olive Shell:
Scribblings on the Surface

By Patricia B. Mitchell.

This shiny, cylindrical shell has chestnut-brown markings on it which look very vaguely like letters of the alphabet. The shell may be as tall as 2½ inches, with a low, pointed spire and four or five body whorls. At the lower end of the long aperture there are folds on the inner surface, and a notch at the base. The Lettered Olive lacks an operculum, or “door,” for the opening of its shell.

Between the scribblings on the surface, the shell is a pale grayish-white color. The inside may be pink. There is an especially desirable variety of the Lettered Olive Shell which has no writing on it, and is a beautiful yellow or perhaps a warm brown shade.

When the Lettered Olive snail is crawling or tunneling, its mantle partially covers the shell, helping to protect and polish the shell.

Native Americans long ago made necklaces of the handsome shells. In the early 1900s these “Panama Shells” were collected and strung to make portières (door-curtains) to sell to tourists.

The predacious snail lives in the sand along the shore, and feeds on the tiny Coquina and other smooth-surfaced small clams. Sometimes one will find a Lettered Olive shell with a Common Atlantic Slipper Shell (Crepidula fornicata) attached to its surface, riding piggyback.

The Lettered Olive Shell reproduces by laying its eggs on the sand. The 20-50 eggs, in transparent capsules, develop into larvae within a week. These “babies” (veligers) break out of the capsule and live in a planktonic form prior to developing into adults.

In 1984, the shell was designated the official state shell of South Carolina. It may be found from there to Florida coasts.


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