Field Notes: Cypraea mus

The first time I visited Amuay, on the Paraguaná Peninsula of Venezuela, I was looking for Cypraea mus in what I understand is the only place they may be collected intertidally. I discovered also that the people of Amuay eat molluscs, and there were impressive piles of shells in a dump at the end of the village. Besides bivalves, there were Fasciolaria hollisteri Weisbord, 1962, Phyllonotus margaritensis Abbott, 1958, Melongena melongena (Linne, 1758), Voluta musica Linne, 1758, Chicoreus brevifrons (Lamarck, 1822), Vasum muricatum(Born, 1778) and Haustellum chrysostoma (Sowerby, 1834), among others.

We found hundreds of cypraea in the turtle grass in very shallow water when the tide was low. They were out feeding, moving about freely. There was one villager collecting them, and others were out collecting other shells for food. One of them kindly gave me a volute, and I thought it would be nice to get a picture of the volute and a cypraea together in situ, so I swished the volute in the water to wake it up and placed it on the sand near a cowry. As soon as I did, the cypraea put up its mantle, about faced, and RAN away!

Thinking about this, I realized that the volute is a predator species. So are the tulips, murex, crown conchs, and vase shells I'd seen on shore (but not in the water this close to the village). That's why there were so many cypraea near the village: they eat all the predators (but not the meat-poor cowries)!

Having visited the area six or seven times now, there are far fewer cypraea to be found in that location, because the villagers have discovered that they can sell the cowries to dealers. They are still to be found, however, especially in slightly deeper water where the turbidity endemic to the area makes them hard to spot (the kids find them by feel, though). And now they are also on the garbage piles.

Peggy Williams

This article is copyrighted by Peggy Williams. It may be used in Shell Club newsletters with proper attribution.