If you were a small child who grew up near a coastline—or maybe especially if you didn’t—nothing was more enchanting about summer than collecting seashells on the beach. People have been using conches and scallops and whelks as musical instruments, jewelry, canvas, and even money, pretty much since we evolved enough to pick them up. But the future of seashells and the creatures who make them is uncertain. The smallest shells are dissolving in an acidifying ocean, and today mollusks that have survived 500 million years of ice ages and heat waves are facing an enemy undeterred by their hardened exteriors: humans, and the climate change we’ve created. Science writer Cynthia Barnett’s new book, The Sound of the Sea, is a plea to listen to what shells are telling us, both about the ocean and ourselves.
Go beyond the episode:
- Cynthia Barnett’s The Sound of the Sea (watch the book trailer here)
- Listen to the haunting sound of the conch horn found in the temple of Chavín, and read about Miriam Kolar’s archaeoacoustic investigations into the instruments
- Ever wonder how a mollusk repairs its shell?
- Evolutionary biologist Gary Vermeij explains how to read a seashell
- Probably most famous poem about a shell ever written: “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes
This live horse conch, photographed in December 2018 at Florida’s Cayo Costa state park, is considered large today. (Cynthia Barnett)
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