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Shells, for sure

You've probably picked up hundreds of seashells on sunny afternoons at the beach. But have you ever walked along the high-tide mark just after a big storm's blown over and seen all the shells that have been tossed up by the powerful waves? Talk about un-buried treasure! Whenever you like to do your beachcombing, there are two especially good places to look for the prettiest shells. You can try poking around in a quiet tidepool, or you can sit down beside a clump of seaweed at the water's edge and pry it apart. But the farther you go ``up'' the beach - away from the water - the more shells you'll find that have been chipped by the waves and rocks and bleached by the sun.

There are more than 6,000 kinds of shells on the East and West Coasts of the United States, but we won't talk about all of them today. Just a few of my own favorites.

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If you like rainbows of colors, you'll love the little ``butterfly.'' In California it's sometimes called a ``wedge,'' and Floridians may know it as a ``coquina.'' But ``butterfly'' best describes these shells, I think, as they're lifted into the air in puffs of yellow, orange, pink, blue, and purple by the pounding surf. Delicate as they are, they can be crushed into a fine powder and used for building stone.

Seen any little pigs on the beach lately? If so, you've probably come upon some ``cowries.'' These glossy, hump-backed shells with tiny teeth on the underside are called porcellani, or ``little pig'' in Italian. People living on many Pacific islands and in some parts of Asia and Africa think they're so valuable that they use them for money.

Another shell that East Coast Indians used to use for money - and chowder - is the ``quahog.'' They carved the inside purple bands of this hard-shelled clam into tube-shaped beads, or ``wampum,'' and also used them to make ``treaty belts'' to signify important agreements with other Indian nations.

If you've ever walked along a beach anywhere between Cape Cod and Florida and listened to music playing as the waves tossed up pile after pile of shells, you've probably seen - and heard - some ``jingle shells.'' These thin, glassy shells are usually pale yellow or orange. If you find a black one, it's that color because it's been trapped in black mud or in an oil deposit.

Another of my favorites is the ``moon snail.'' It may not look like much - just an ordinary round, brownish shell. But the animal that lives inside is a wonderfully inventive architect that builds, grain by cemented grain, a flat, round case for its eggs. The moon snail's ``sand collars'' look just like shirt collars and are so smooth and perfect that you might think they were man-made.

The egg cases of the East Coast ``knobbed'' and ``channeled whelks'' are even fancier. They are long ribbons of wafer-shaped, leathery capsules that are attached to one another by a single cord - and that look something like a rattlesnake tail. Inside each capsule are dozens of miniature whelks.

And these are only a few of the thousands of natural treasures that you can find on the beach - on a sunny, cloudy, or stormy day.

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