“I am a volunteer now for 16 years; the first 14 at the Lovers Key State Park and now the past two at Koreshan State Park,” said Pamela Jones-Morton, a Florida Master Naturalist through The University of Florida, in introducing “The Grub Club” session on “Shells” on Tuesday, July 9, at Noon. “I made the move here to help develop the naturalist programs and I absolutely love it!”
One of the new programs is “The Grub Club” that is a series to draw more people to Koreshan State Park during the slower summer season. Judging by the turnout at the park pavilion, Pam’s efforts seem a success, as roughly 40 people, half being children, filled every available picnic table. Perhaps most gratifying was when she asked how many visitors were at Koreshan for the first time, with roughly half raising their hands!
Bivalves: “Alive, Alive, Oh!”
“The earliest settlers of this region were the Calusa Indians,” Pamela offered. “Shells were crucial to their existence, as they used every part of them, Not only did they eat the meat from the inside, they disposed of the shells into big mounds onto which they built their settlements. A perfect example is on Fort Myers Beach, at the Mound House that is atop one of these shell mounds. When you visit the Mound House, go underneath the structure, right into the shell mound, to see the various different layers, as it is fascinating! Later area inhabitants, including the Koreshan Unity religious sect, used shells to make walkways. Today, people travel from all across the world to shell in our region, including to make decorations, so they remain an important element in Florida history.”
“Mollusks are the largest shell category of these invertebrates, with over 80,000 different varieties that include snails, mussels, and even octopus, but today we will discuss just two – bivalves and gastropods,” Pam said. “Bivalves mean ‘two shells’ that swing open like two hinged doors. They live in the sand, with a foot that digs into it, so you do not ordinarily see them. This is why when people shell, they tend to stand in one spot and just move their toes – that is a way to check with your feet to see if you detect any shells buried in the sand. They have two long tubes, called siphons, that rise up, with one taking in the water for food as well as for air, with the other shooting out waste water. There is a sticky substance near its mouth that catches the food material, with its tongue moving the food along and into its mouth.”
Bivalves breed in an ancient fashion, said Pam. “When it comes time to spawn, they shoot their egg and sperm out into the water, and if those two come together, fine; if not, then they must wait until the next spawning season. If there is a connection, the microscopic larva immediately starts to form a shell. As it grows, so does the shell, as they keep adding to it, with the animal growing from the inside and the shell from the outside by extracting calcium carbonate that it accesses through its food.”
While shells are beautiful, Pam cautioned, “Remember, there is a living creature often inside! Some of you may be old enough to remember the song, ‘Cockles & Mussels, Alive, Alive, Oh!’ Cockles are bivalves that people in England would harvest from the Dover Straights, then put them into their carts and push through the streets of London, singing the song, because you cannot eat them unless they are alive, so the salesman was basically letting potential customers know that ‘they are alive so come on out and buy them!’”
“We all know and love gastropods,” raved Pam, “even though they are mostly snails and slugs, but they include Lightning whelks and Fighting conchs! We often call these univalves as they have a one-piece shell. Gastropods do not spawn, as there are males and females that breed as a family, producing casings where the eggs can incubate for roughly one month. You often find these egg casings in the beach wrack line, so when you see these, you know gastropods are in your area. Beaches usually have several wrack lines, one at the low tide line, another at high tide, and often a third near the halfway point. Wracklines are the best places to shell because the Gulf of Mexico brings everything up and deposits it right there on the beach. If you find a gastropod casing in the wrack line, however, the eggs will no longer hatch. The casings there are soft and squishy, and can be as long as 2-1/2 feet, just like a Slinky.”
When eggs hatch, “the babies look identical to their parent,” Pam related. “Isn’t that amazing! Gastropods can live up to 20 years and weigh as much as 18 to 20 pounds as a full adult, though they rarely reach that size anymore in Southwest Florida due to the environment that is no longer conducive to that development. You can immediately recognize the Lightning whelk because it is the only gastropod with a left-side opening, with all others on the right. Females tend to be larger than males, and when you see the very top of their shell, it looks just like the baby, and for a very good reason – that is because the top of the shell is the original baby, and that is also absolutely amazing!”
A prevalent Southwest Florida gastropod is the Fighting conch that, despite its name, “is a plant eater,” exclaimed Pam! “We call them ‘Fighting conchs’ because if you hold one in your hand, it fights to flip over, as well as because the top of its shell looks like a gladiator’s shield.” She implored the audience “that when you do go out shelling, simply take along a child’s bucket to store your treasures, so that when you are done, you can just put it aside for a while to see if anything is still alive for you to gently release back into the water. As for shells that are alright to take home, once you make your necklaces and jewelry, remember someone was eaten so we could have our fun!”
It is obvious by her presentation that Pam has 16 years in front of park audiences, as her enthusiastic and outgoing personality is perfectly suited to the entire spectrum of ages who attend her programs. She finds the ideal blend of not talking over the heads of the children, often including them in her presentation, while providing enough intellectual information to educate and entertain adults.
Koreshan State Park
In 1894, Cyrus Reed Teed brought his group of religious followers from Chicago to the area of Florida that is now the Village of Estero, with others settling the southern portion of Fort Myers Beach. His goal was to build “The New Jerusalem” for his faith that he called “Koreshanity,” with him assuming the title, “Koresh,” that is the Hebrew translation for Cyrus, meaning “shepherd.” His colonists believed the entire universe existed within a huge hollow sphere. They built and operated a print shop, boat yard, cement shop, sawmill, bakery, general store and hostelry.
Following Teed’s 1908 death, the religious group experienced a steady decline. By 1961, the four remaining members donated 305 acres to the State of Florida, including eleven historic structures that remain in Koreshan State Park that are on the National Register of Historic Places, along with unique exotic vegetation throughout the 135-acre state park. In addition to the historic structures and landscaped grounds, Koreshan State Park features nature trails, picnicking, canoeing and camping.
Pack your own brownbag lunch and join the Grub Club to experience the naturalist topic of that day. Naturalist Grub Club sessions are free with the park entry fee of $5 per vehicle with 2 to 8 occupants, $4 for single passenger cars, and $2 pedestrians and bicyclists. There are two final Grub Club sessions for the summer season, on Wednesdays, August 28 & September 18, from noon to 1 p.m. August 28 is “Gopher Tortoises,” where participants will discover these fascinating ancient species. While Gopher Tortoises are entertaining to watch, they are endangered, so learn about their behavior, anatomy and fun facts, as well as seeing and holding the shells of specimens that once lived in Koreshan State Park.
The September 18 Grub Club features “Butterflies.” Learn the differences between butterflies and moths, along with butterfly development, plants that support butterflies, netting techniques, tagging and more. While not part of “The Grub Club” series, Koreshan State Park also offers “Why Native Plants” on Tuesday, July 23, and “Birds of Prey” on Tuesday, August 20, each in Art Hall at 10 a.m.
Koreshan State Park is at 3800 Corkscrew Road, near the intersection of US41 in Estero, roughly 30 minutes from Fort Myers Beach. For additional information, call 239-992-0311 or see FloridaStateParks.org.
By Gary Mooney