Walking on a beach and finding sand dollars is a beachcomber’s delight. They often can be found on beaches where there is not much else to collect.
According to Cheryl Page at the Gulf of Maine Aquarium, “sand dollars are from the class of marine animals known as Echinoids, spiny skinned creatures. Their relations include the sea lily, the sea cucumber, the star fish and the sea urchin. When alive, the local species, Echinarachnius parma is outfitted in a maroon-colored suit of moveable spines that encompass the entire shell. Like its close relative the sea urchin, the sand dollar has five sets of pores arranged petal pattern. The pores are used to move sea water into its internal water-vascular system which allows for movement. “
There are several legends about the sand dollar. One version goes like this: There are five dove shapes locked inside the sand dollar. They hold a hidden promise. After a sand dollar dies and is broken open, the doves are released and come to life, ready to take flight and experience their freedom.
Many of us have not seen a living sand dollar. We might think of them as bleach white because that’s what washes up on shore after they die. When they’re alive, they are actually very colorful. Some are green, some are black-purple and some are brown. If you have yet to see a living sand dollar, it is probably because they prefer to dwell under the sand. If you go snorkeling or scuba diving and run across a cache of the white, expired sand dollars, chances are that live ones are in the sand right underneath them, so please do not disturb.
You’ll want to make sure that the sand dollars you collect are not alive. There are fines involved in many beach areas for collecting live shells, and in many places sand dollars are included. According to Karie Partington of Naples News.com (Naples, Florida), “The live ones are tan in color and have a fine hairlike coating. They also secrete a yellowish, iodine-based substance that gets on your hands if you pick them up. The dead ones are white and hairless. In addition to the legality issue, there are other reasons to steer clear of collecting live sand dollars, said Jose Leal, director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island. ‘Sooner or later the live ones are going to ooze and get slimy and smelly if you take them,’ he said.”(We’ll assume then that live sand dollars in the Naples, Florida area are tan in color.) The live sand dollar pictured in my hand (below) on a Southern California beach was purple and did not secrete anything on me.
Yummy and festive: How to make your own sand dollar cookies!