June 19, 2019
Sand Dollars: Take the Test
Posted by: John Cassell
With summer officially here we will be taking more folks to the beach for some fun in the sun. One of our staff’s favorite activities is to go about and collect the various treasures that have washed up from the previous high tide. If you're on any of Georgia's beaches there is a high chance you will see a sand dollar (Mellita quinquiesperforata) washed ashore, but is it truly dead and can you legally take one home?
First, what is this bizarre creature? Sand dollars belong to Phylum Echinodermata, which translates to “spike skin”. This means their bodies have bumps, bristles, or spines to help them move along the ocean floor. They also have tube feet for further assistance, so a sand dollar is a cousin to sea stars and sea urchins. The body, which isn’t a shell, is what we call the test. For this species in Georgia they have holes called “lunules” to act as pressure drainage channels and help prevent the animal being popped out of the sand by wave action. Also, just like it’s cousins, the sand dollar has its mouth in the center of its underside and uses the tube feet to bring food to the mouth.
It’s illegal in a lot of states, including Georgia, to collect and kill live animals from the beach so here is the quick run-down of whether or not you can keep a sand dollar. If the animal is alive, it will have tube feet and bristles that move and are brown to purple in color. If the creature is dead, the bristles will have fallen off and exposed its test to the sunlight giving it a bleach white color. These bleach white tests are why they are called sand dollars; they look like “currency” in this state. When in doubt as to whether it’s dead, toss it back in the sea, you don’t want the smells to linger in your suitcase anyway.
One more set of facts you might enjoy is that there are Christianity symbols found in sand dollars. According to legend, if you look at the de-bristled test, you can see a star pattern that represents the Star of Bethlehem leading the Wise Men to the manger. There is a faint flower pattern on the underside too, which many say is the Poinsettia, a flower associated with Christmas. The 5 lunules around the test represent the holes made into Jesus as he was crucified on the Cross. Finally, if you break a sand dollar in half then 5 “angels” emerge. These angels are doves, and the doves are actually v-shaped teeth at the mouth of the animal. Once again, you can only see certain symbols if the animal is dead so don’t forget to take the test!