It's not visions of sugar plums that dance in the heads of Sanibel shell collectors, it's visions of Scaphella junonia, commonly known as "THE Junonia." There's not a day that I roam the shell littered shores of Sanibel that I don't lust for the discovery of this pride of the Island. The shape and color pattern are deeply etched in my memory bank. At the vaguest hint of this icon all senses go into overdrive and my shell scooping net flies into the water, trapping any moving object in sight.
It was ten years before this shelling dream became reality. Still a full-time resident of the Hoosier state, I was in town for my quarterly Grandma fix. It was a blistery cold winter day and you guessed it the wind was strongly gusting from the northwest. Outfitted in a sweatshirt, poncho, and gloves and hiking boots I headed for Bowman's Beach. I might add that Adam, my four year old Grandson, was similarly attired and viewing the seascape from his cozy blanket-lined stroller.
You see, I was carrying on the tradition. My Grandmother started taking me to the beach when I was about the same age as Adam. Those beach strolls changed my life in so many ways. My Grandma passed away just a few days before she was to be introduced to Adam for the first time. My daughter was devastated, so disappointed that this special meeting didn't take place. I vowed that Adam and my other grandchildren would come to know my Grandmother by the kind of Grandmother I would be for them. Adam is 12 now and since the age of six he has declared that his life will be devoted to the study of marine biology.
About 45 minutes into my brisk pre-dawn hike, at the day's first light, there IT was just below the low tide mark. I scooped it up with little effort so there would be no elaborate story to tell about battling the tide for my find. Adam was perplexed by my jubilant display of emotion but joined in the festive spirit by clapping his hands. Well, that was eight years ago and this memorable experience hasn't been repeated, but I never stop looking. It's all part of the adventure of shelling on Sanibel.
The junonia belongs to the volute family which is a taxonomic family of medium-sized to extremely large predatory sea snails. Volutes are known for their very distinctively marked spiral shells. The family name refers to this as the Latin meaning of volute is "scroll." Volutes have an elongated aperture and an inner lip characterized by a number of deep plaits. It is the elaborate and distinctive decorations of the volutes that have made them a very attractive collector's item.
The junonia is a deep-water species commonly found in 60 to 120 feet of water, however it rarely is found washed up on the beach, except with strong winds or after a storm. Specimens that make it to shore frequently have been battered by the waves. Junonias often are hauled from the deep waters by shrimpers or dredged by divers. The junonia's territory extends from the Carolinas and Texas to Florida and the Florida Keys.
The shape of the junonia is described as fusiform, meaning spindle-shaped, and the species can reach a length of 4- 6 inches. The background is a cream color with a pattern that includes spiral rows of mahogany- colored square dots. Subspecies displaying color variations have been discovered in Alabama (named as the state shell) and the Yucatan.
The columella or pillar around which the whorls form their spiral course may or may not be pleated. The radula (tongue) is very small and short and has only one row of teeth. Most gastropods have an operculum or trap door that they can shut to protect themselves from predators. The operculum is absent in junonias. The nuclear or initial whorls are quite smooth, with the post-nuclear whorls being finely sculptured. The soft parts or body of the sea snail is a mottled purple and patterned somewhat like the shell itself.
For many years it was relatively easy to find Junonias to purchase in shell shops but recently I was told by a shop owner that they are becoming more difficult to acquire. The going rate is $30 - $60.
The first edition of The Birds of America by John James Audubon, published between 1827 and 1838, has a plate that includes not only two terns looking out to sea, but also a sea urchin and a junonia. At the time the book was published, this was a shell that was considered both rare and desirable.
How did the junonia get its name? Juno is the Roman version of Hera, the Greek goddess of marriage and childbirth. Juno was the sister and the wife of Jupiter whose many love affairs made her jealous and spiteful. Usually she was portrayed as a lady of stately beauty, with her name bestowed on members of the plant and animal kingdoms, including a flower and a butterfly. Peter Dance reports that he believes that Lamarck called this shell a junonia because he felt the shell was majestic but somewhat feminine.