Charles Dickens had two out of three right when he spoke of oysters as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary.”

I’d accept secret since oysters spend their time on the bottom of seas, ponds and estuaries. And self-contained is self-evident, since each shell is its own complete animal home, allowing for all the necessities of food, water and shelter. But solitary? No way!

Consider that oysters are found in beds of thousands of individuals, often packed and even cemented together in their watery domicile. However, what is fascinating is not only the individual togetherness of many oysters, but the community that exists just beneath, around, on top of, and sometimes even inside their shells.

With the opening of Tisbury Great Pond to the ocean last week, and the subsequent lowering of the water level, gathering West Tisbury wild oysters is once again possible. Shellfish seekers are busying themselves collecting these beautiful bivalves, but along with fresh oyster meat, other organisms may end up in their fishers’ refrigerators and on their plates.

Each oyster can be considered an ark of wild things, abundant with plants and animals cohabitating with or within the oyster. If you look closely (or do not clean your catch completely), the flora and fauna becomes obvious.

An inspection of a single individual bivalve can be considered an oyster safari. Start with the plants. Seaweeds and algae of all types live on and among the oysters, and, as filter feeders, oysters will catch their phytoplankton neighbors when they strain the water to eat.

Examine the shell. You will see other animals holding onto their host. Crustaceans, such as barnacles, copepods, isopods, amphipods and other creeping crawlers, might wriggle and writhe around the oyster’s shell. And mollusks have their place, too, with mussels hanging on by their byssal threads, boat shells double docking, and mud snails laying their eggs in the shell’s crevices.

Look closely at those crevices for holes made by the simple yet effective animal predator called a boring sponge. Far from uninteresting, this basic animal efficiently weaves its way into the heart of the oyster. And not in a good way. Seeking calcium, the boring sponge makes holes in the oyster’s shell until the shell weakens and crumbles, making the oyster (unfortunately) more vulnerable to predation. Think of it as a sponge strip-mining or fracking an oyster. This sponge is a colonial animal that can grow over an area as large as several square feet, affecting many oysters, and its damage remains in each oyster shell even after it vacates the oyster’s surface.

By far the most disturbing housemates of the oysters (at least for the eating public) are the worms. Many different types of wily worms crawl in and about those boring sponge holes, and if you aren’t careful can end up in your supper. Sand worms and blood or clamworms are the usual suspects. These segmented bristle worms have legs called parapodia and can be up to 14 inches in length. Definitely not someone I’d like to meet over oysters on the half shell.

With all of these beasts vying for space on, in or under the oyster, it is no wonder that satirist Jonathan Swift suggested, “it was a brave man that first ate an oyster.”

Bon appétit!

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.