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Cha ching! Sand Dollars. Fun to find.

Posted by Greg on November 23, 2011

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. “

Sand dollars from Pismo Beach, California (©JodyDiehl)

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.

Live sand dollar (Photo from

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 (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.

Live Sand Dollar – Underside (©Jody Diehl)

Happy beachcombing!

More reading: Beachcombing? Shelling Regulations Abound. Know Before You Go!

Yummy and festive: How to make your own sand dollar cookies!


17 Responses to “Cha ching! Sand Dollars. Fun to find.”

  1. jackiebelle said

    The living Sand Dollar is exquisite. I have never seen until I read your blog. thank you!!

  2. elizabethweaver said

    Thank you for the clarification of live vs passed sand dollars. Their shells are so beautiful and varied.

  3. mariannegv said

    Very interesting. Thanks for the information

  4. I love these, and knew very little about them. Thank you for the interesting info, I really enjoyed reading it.

  5. LubbyGirl said

    Just stopped by to swap howdies and say thanks for visiting, and I found your post about these really cool sand dollars! We used to collect them when my kids were little; I still have one or two that I didn’t give away to my Children’s Church classes.

  6. The best collection of sand dollars I have ever gotten, since I was a child at la Jolla shores (they used to be everywhere) was in Eleuthera. The problem is they all turned back to sand in my suitcase, despite how carefully I packed them.
    The best collection of conch’s, Grand Cayman, right after a hurricane. I still have them and photos of them that I should post. Incredible haul!

  7. I’m glad I found you. Us shell lovers need to stick together!

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