Brain Problems Can Make People Spend $20,000 On Seashells

Cypraea_mariellae.jpg
Orlean’s The Orchid Thief delves in to the psychosis for some that is orchid collecting. In this example, she covers John Laroche’s arrest for poaching rare orchids in a Florida state preserve and his obsession to find and clone the uber rare Ghost Orchid. The mindset of a collector is not limited to orchids and is pervasive through our culture. McIntosh & Schmeichel (2004) suggest that “collectors are drawn to collecting as a means of bolstering the self by setting up goals that are tangible and attainable and provide the collector with concrete feedback of progress.” Alternatively, severe collecting, hoarding, is seen as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which may reflect a neurological disorder to the frontal lobe that disrupts a mechanisms that modulates the predispositions to acquire and collect. It suggested that this same region of the brain processes ritual and becomes hyperactive in OCD.  So is a malfunctioning brain what drives people to spend $20,000 on a seashell?

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?

Dr. M (1801 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.


14 Replies to “Brain Problems Can Make People Spend $20,000 On Seashells”

  1. I’m glad you brought up this topic. I’ve had a life-long interest in shells (one of the things that had me considering marine biology as a career) and I’ve bought numerous shells over the years for a very small personal collection, mostly because I don’t often travel to places where I can pick them up myself. But before I buy, I try to make sure the dealer buys from ethical sources (not easy and sometimes impossible to confirm) and that the species aren’t endangered. For instance, much as I’d love to own a chambered or paper nautilus, I’ll never buy one. I admit I’m not keen on the concept of buying shells, but for some of us land-locked lubbers, it’s the only way we can get them.

  2. There is absolutely no mistery with this topic. Follow me:

    What makes this article interesting and rather surprising is that the vast majority of people on planet earth are absolutely ignorant about the complex world of specimen shells. In fact it does sound amazing to think that some people spend so much money on a single shell that the media or the discovery channel is not talking about.

    It would not be such an interesting post if the title was “Brain problems cause people to get into dangerous debt to buy 20000 plasma tv”, because it is an orthodox problem and generally accepted by the society, eventhough it is by far worst.

    In fact, having in account modern ways to spend money, it is quite clever to be in a position where you have enough knowledge, passion or even money to invest 20,000$ on a shell.

    You start looking back at a lifetime of joy, friends and the most beautiful places on the planet – Looking back at your travels and books – At everything you know because of seashells. It kicks in like God. The magic puzzle you are building is your own life, and that might be the last chance of making it more perfect.

    It comes out of introspection and insight, rather than consumerism and superficiality.

    What makes people pay 20,000$ for a small incrustation from inside an oyster? It is a pearl. Well, many seashells are much more rare and beautiful than most jewlery or fancy cars – it is just because the general public doesnt notice them, that they remain undervalued.

    …………………………………………………..

    I wonder if Mr McClain asks at the restaurant if the shrimp was trawled? Or if the wood of his furniture was from a renewable source? Or even how many square meters of forest they had to take down to install the aluminum factory that made up for that nice soda can? If not, please quit the hypocrisy and sensationalism. Fake ecology should not be confused with real morals and ethics, because that is what is really endangering marine wild life.

    Some people eat meat every day, yet they would not be capable of killing an animal. That is the illusive power of the sociological octopus.

    I fully understand we should take into the deepest concern even the smallest single life form in the middle of the ocean. But that begins by thinking BIG. As an human, I feel I have a natural right to collect a seashell I adore, eventhough I do not feel the same way about many of our common habits.

  3. This sociological octopus — where can I find one? I’d like to buy one as a gift for a blogger I know likes that sort of thing.

  4. “Brain problems cause people to get into dangerous debt to buy 20000 plasma tv”, because it is an orthodox problem and generally accepted by the society, eventhough it is by far worst.

    I would totally agree that spending $20,000 on a TV would be equally upsetting. But that really falls into another category. The person is not collecting TV’s but rather has made a rather poor choice. With regard to pearls the range from a poor choice to an investment depending on your motivation.

    You start looking back at a lifetime of joy, friends and the most beautiful places on the planet – Looking back at your travels and books – At everything you know because of seashells. It kicks in like God. The magic puzzle you are building is your own life, and that might be the last chance of making it more perfect.

    I totally agree that a collection of shells made by you can give be source of fond memories and allow one to appreciate biodiversity. However, again that is not what we are talking about here. The post concerns the need to purchase shells from areas the collector has never been.

    I wonder if Mr McClain asks at the restaurant if the shrimp was trawled?

    I do. I only consume fish from sustainable fisheries using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide.

    Or if the wood of his furniture was from a renewable source? Or even how many square meters of forest they had to take down to install the aluminum factory that made up for that nice soda can?

    I do think about these things and many more issues about my footprint on the planet. I limit my consumption of disposable materials, water, and energy. So I guess then I can keep on with the purported “hypocrisy and sensationalism”. The fact is for whatever reason you read the post and even responded. However you seemed to confused the issues which is why spend so much money on a collection rather than why have a collection at all?

  5. What I didn’t cover in this post is the environmental damage that shell collecting has caused to marine ecosystems. One study shows that off the California coast there has been a significant decline in shell size of gastropods for this reason.

  6. “…that really falls into another category. The person is not collecting TV’s”

    Most houses in europe or the u.s have televisions everywhere except the bathrooms. Collecting in another relative concept.

    “The post concerns the need to purchase shells from areas the collector has never been.”

    Purchasing specimens from foreign regions is imperative in order to attempt to compleat any of the most collected families of seashells. In general only collectors within the tropics are satisfied with the potential of local fauna –

    “However you seemed to confused the issues which is why spend so much money on a collection rather than why have a collection at all?”

    Some people have nice collections and have failed to buy a single shell. Spending money is optional. What we are dealing here is with levels of specialization. Of course, if you want to know about the latest rarity of the most collected group in the shell world, out of the 6 billion people on planet earth there will be a very insignificant group that gathers enough strenght and knowledge to raise the price of such specimens to arround 20 000. Peanuts my friend: There are millions of plasma tv

  7. I just took this from CONCH-L. The post is from Guido Poppe. Well known dealer:

    “This type of Zoila is only rare in drawers, nobody knows how many are out in the sea. Nobody knows if it is a vulnerable population or not. “Sought after”: nobody is looking after it: where to go ? And who is going to spend half a million dollar in a search for a shell worth 12000 $ today ? Knowing that when he finds one hundred specimen the price will drop to 3000 $ a piece at once. (the 20000 is again an opportunity price for a dealer, not the current market value).”

  8. A question for Pure Conchologist and/or Craig:

    Do shell collectors or the act of shell-collecting contribute in any way to biodiversity studies? i.e. do collectors report their findings to agencies or biologists or just shelve their “precious”? If the latter, why not report findings? Knowledge of many of the rarer species could benefit from knowing about abundance and range and habitat characteristics, etc. Perhaps the tissue could be preserved to study anatomy or look for parasites when you clean the shells out…

    At least there would be some scientific merit to the collecting.

    How many species have been described by shell collectors? AND, how many of those are based only on shell characters? This could be a big problem for taxonomy is species are commonly being described without reference to their anatomy.

  9. Hi Kelvin,

    Biodiversity studies about shelled mollusks stand at 99% on the shoulders of conchologists –

    That means that if you wanted to know something about most of the species there would hardly be any information available other than that contributed by serious shell collectors – for which scientific data is extremely important.

    Eventhough a lot of collectors are simply seduced by the aesthetics and a lot of dealers by money, it is fair to say that the majority enjoys an healthy mixture that indeed has been fundamental in gathering knowledge about the second largest group of animals on our planet.

  10. I would disagree with Pure Conchologist that 99% stand on the shoulders of conchologists. Most recent descriptions are from professional taxonomists and not collectors probably related to the difficulty of a nonacademic to publish in a scientific journal. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t occur but it is rarer perhaps then it used to be when “gentleman” scientists could still make valuable contributions. Historically, the field compared probably to most others has garnered information from an involved public. That being said these contributions appear to be mainly limited to taxonomy and perhaps biogeographic ranges. How gastropods interact in a biological communities, large scale global patterns, physiology, genetics, and variety of other areas, conchologists lacking resources and equipment rarely add to. There is currently no centralized database as there is for birds for collectors to add information to. Conchologists do have a great published forum, American Conchologist, but it appears to be largely ignored by scientists (i.e. never cited in the academic journals). Most of the major mollucan journals (Veliger, Malacologia, etc.) really don’t accept faunal lists and personal observations now for amateurs (meant only the sense that they are not in paid positions to study molluscs). Obviously, Kevin raises a valid point about how much of taxonomy is based on hard vs. soft anatomy. In my experience SOME whole descriptions of species are largely tied to shell features.

  11. “One study shows that off the California coast there has been a significant decline in shell size of gastropods for this reason.” Are you talking about edible abalones? I do not think specimen collectors are responsible for that.

    No I am not.

    Anthropogenic impacts and historical decline in body size of rocky intertidal gastropods in southern California

    Authors: Roy, Kaustuv; Collins, Allen G.; Becker, Bonnie J.; Begovic, Emina; Engle, John M.

    Source: Ecology Letters, Volume 6, Number 3, March 2003, pp. 205-211(7)

    And I quote…

    When rocky intertidal species are harvested by humans, larger individuals are often preferentially collected, resulting in altered size structures of the exploited populations(Castilla & Duran 1985; Branch & Moreno 1994; Lindberg et al. 1998; Jackson & Sala 2001). Moreover, body sizes of species that are not direct targets of harvesting may also decline because of indirect effects (Jackson & Sala 2001; but see Keough et al. 1993).

  12. As a shell collector and a student of natural history I would like to make a couple comments. First, I would suggest that you visit the Website (http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/cowries) of Dr. Chris Meyer at the University of Florida who is working on DNA sequencing of the family Cypraeidae (Cowries). The list of people he thanks includes many non-scientist collectors who have sent material for him to use in his studies. We were the first to photograph alive and send a sample for DNA studies of a recently described deepwater cowrie on Easter Island (Cypraea garciai, Lorenz 2001). Scientists do not have the budgets for extensive field research in malacology and amateurs have been and will continue to be significant contributors. I would be glad to provide other examples. Knowledge seeking is a partnership between all humans not just scientists (I am a biochemist by training and worked at a large biotech company, so I am not ignorant of the need for structured studies and the Scientific Method). Dr. James McLean one of the contemporary pioneers in the study of West Coast Molluscs regularly attends meetings of the Pacific conchological club. You will find scientists and museum folks attending the COA convention every year. As for California, by far the biggest impact on shells in my 30 years of observation has been increased pollution from development and, in the case of Abalone, a combination of overfishing and disease (withering foot). There are actually very few shell collectors in California and the ones that I know are avid conservationists seeking to protect the environment. Yes there are greedy collectors but that is the exception.

  13. Hi,
    sorry to get into this interesting discussion quite late! But it happens that I am at the same time an avid shell collector and an evolutionary biologist, so you can understand how schizophrenic I can be in such a discussion!
    I am well wondered on how threatened some mollusk species can be, and I am not completely sure that shell collecting didn’t drive some elusive and small shell populations to extinction (especially in Zoila group!). However, it is definitively true that most of the scientific data we have nowadays are because of the work of shell lovers, other than scientists. So, we might ask ourselves: is it a man’s right to kill an animal for his own joy, or to improve his knowledge? I don’t know, but it is true that specimen shell collecting impact on the mollusk populations is, by far, the smallest problem! Pollution, commercial fishing and souvenir market have by far the strongest impact on them.
    I must admit that I will be one of the ‘sick’ guys that will be ready to buy a mariellae cowrie, and the only think that prevent me to do it is that I cannot afford it! I don’t know if this is a pathological behavior, maybe it is, but the full truth is that possessing a beautiful rare thing (whatever it is) makes you feel a little ‘special’. What’s wrong with this? I don’t know. But I agree it is the same mechanism that push people to buy a 20,000$ plasma tv.
    On the contrary, as an evolutionary biologist, what puzzled me for long is what is the evolutionary significance of collecting behavior (if any), as well as all the other (apparently) meaningless human activities (f.i. arts, extreme sports, music….). I might have an answer, but I’d like to see what you think.
    P.S.: Ah, by the way, the pictured shell is not a Zoila mariellae, but a young Zoila vercoi f. candida. Far less priced!

Comments are closed.