Every seashell has a story, and we are lucky enough to have a seasoned storyteller in our midst to tell it.

Dr. Fred Hotchkiss, known to a generation of kids as Fossil Fred, is a scientist, educator and avid beach walker. As the director of the Marine & Paleobiological Research Institute, he is always on the lookout for interesting beach finds on his Island jaunts.

Last month, he discovered a doozy. At the north end of the Lagoon, between the drawbridge and the former lobster hatchery, Fossil Fred found a brightly colored and unfamiliar shell. He quickly took to the books, but couldn’t find the shell in any of his usual resources. 

Fred pulled out his go-to identification books: the shell was not in Richard and Holly Heuer’s Exploring for Seashells on Martha’s Vineyard, not in Morris Jacobson and William Emerson’s Shells of the New York City Area, not in R. W. Miner’s Fieldbook of Seashore Life, nor Allan Keith and Stephen Spongeberg’s Island Life: A Catalog of the Biodiversity On and Around Martha’s Vineyard.

So he did what any self-respecting scientist would do: he went to the library. Leave it to a librarian to find the answer. 

Vineyard Haven’s reference librarian, Cecily Greenaway, adeptly came up with a positive identification. She believed the shell was Cardites floridanus, also called the broad-ribbed carditid, which is only found from Mexico to Florida.

Solving the identification mystery might have been cause for a shellebration; however, true scientists answer one question only to find others. The most obvious here is, why is this Florida shell on a beach on Martha’s Vineyard?

Fred relates that he considered Gulf Stream transport via currents, or perhaps the existence of an isolated population in our waters. So he began to reach out to other scientists in the area, eventually getting in touch with the Boston Malacological Club (BMC). This interesting group, whose charter is “to promote the study of land, freshwater and Marine mollusks, related creatures and their environments,” began in 1910, and is the second-oldest continuously active shell club in America. And since its inception, the club has met in the same room at Harvard for a century!

Members of the club and Fred noodled the situation together, noting that Fred’s shell was only an empty shell. There was no animal or flesh to indicate that it might have been living in the Lagoon. They suggested that Fred return to the site to see if he could find other carditids to prove that this species might live in the Lagoon. Scuba diving was also suggested, but Fred returned on foot to look for more evidence of this potential new Lagoon species.

While Fred did not find another Florida carditid, he did discover a bunch of other exotic shells not normally found on the Vineyard. At this point, for him, “the porridge thickened.”  

Included in the new collection was a frond oyster, broad-ribbed carditid, Atlantic kitten paw, Pennsylvania lucine, giant bittersweet, cayenne keyhole limpet, Florida prickly cockle, lightning whelk, and eastern auger shell; all shells that are normally found in the Sanibel Island area of Florida.

When Fred reported the additional shells to the BMC, the consensus was, in retrospect, quite elementary. Fred and the fellowship of the shells knew that they had a collection of Florida shells, brought not by the great Gulf Stream, but by human hands. The found shells were the result of the discarding of a domestic shell collection.

A collection that likely made its way to the Island the way most of us do — on a ferry.

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