You may ask yourself what this has to do with the deep sea. The Brisbane Times features an article entitled Shell out for these beach beauties about shell collecting. Specifically, the article mentions Cypraea (Zoila) mariella, Mariella’s Cowry, a deep sea prize that is one of the rarest shells on the market and in auctions (yes there is a shell market and auctions). Its rarity and thus price is tied to a limited biogeographical range. It is only found off NW Australia and in 200-300m of water which also explains it relatively recent description (Raybaudi, 1983). The species is so rare and so heavily sought after that the Australian government lists it as nationally vulnerable. It is not a particularly flashy shell, Mariella’s Cowry is the color of heavy cream toped with a hazelnut-colored protoconch (larval shell) but is rather absent of a pattern or sculpture. An individual of this species may go for as much as $20,000 in F++ (gem) quality and of substantial size. I know this because as I study deep-sea gastropods, I am often (weekly) contacted by collectors wanting rare deep-sea shells for purchase. Of course, I don’t sell individuals numerous illegal and unethical reasons.
So other than having an extra $20,000 laying around what drives collectors to want such a species? Is it a psychosis? In fairness many of these collectors have made contributions to taxonomy and biogeography of the groups they collect. This may justify spending $1,000’s to obtain every individual species in a family. I admit to having a personal/scientific collection of gastropods. All of them in my collection encompass species I have obtained as gifts or through my travels. I can honestly say I have never purchased a shell (although I have thought about it numerous times). Were are the lines and to what extent is this healthy? What are your thoughts?