How often have you come across a sand dollar on the beach? Many people, children and adults alike, look for these fascinating sea urchins, but nowadays, it is uncommon to find one that is intact. Sand dollars are a delightful find for many and are considered beach treasures.
One of the many reasons many look for a sand dollar is its petal pattern featuring five sets of pores that allow the animal to move. When these sand dollars wash up on the shore and are bleached by the scorching sun, they transform into what looks like a silver dollar coin — thus their name, sand dollar.
The Legend of the Sand Dollar
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A sand dollar is essentially a skeleton of a small animal that’s cousins with the sea cucumber, starfish, sea lily, and sea urchin. But these ocean creatures are shrouded in mystery and legends.
Among all the different legends about the sand dollar, the most popular is the story about Christ.
When you look at the top part of the sand dollar, you will notice a symbol that can easily be mistaken for a star. Biblically, it represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men or Magi — Gaspar, Baltazar, and Melchor — to Jesus the night he was born.
Around the star dollar, you see an outline of the Easter Lily, which represents Christ’s resurrection. The sand dollar has five holes, with four found at the ends of the star and the last one at the center.
Based on old religious stories, the four holes indicate the four wounds on Jesus’ body when he was crucified — two on his hands and two on his feet. The fifth hole stands for the wound Jesus endured when one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear.
And the legend doesn’t end there. When you turn over the sand dollar, there is a visible outline of the poinsettia, considered the Christmas flower, on the other side. This is another reminder of Jesus’ birth. And surprisingly, when you break open the sand dollar, you will see five dove or birdlike shapes coming out from the inside. In the Bible, doves have always been a symbol of peace, hope, and goodwill.
There was a poem created by Chris Auer about the sand dollar and its religious connections:
There’s a lovely little legend
that I would like to tell you,
of the birth and death of Jesus,
found in this lowly shell.
If you examine it closely,
you’ll see that you find here,
four nail holes and a fifth one,
made by a Roman spear.
On one side, the Easter lily,
its center is the star,
that appeared unto the shepherds
and led them from afar.
The Christmas Poinsettia
etched on the other side,
reminds us of His birthday,
our happy Christmastide.
Now break the center open,
and here you will release,
the five white doves awaiting,
to spread Good Will and Peace.
This simple little symbol,
Christ left for you and me,
to help us spread His Gospel,
through all Eternity.
Another legend that is not religious states that the sand dollar is connected to mermaids, wherein sand dollars are actually the lost coins of these mythical creatures. Aside from mermaids, another fun legend consider sand castles as the treasure coins of the people from Atlantis.
12 Fun Sand Dollar Facts
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Now that you know what a sand dollar is and the legends surrounding this beach treasure, it’s time to dive into some scientific but fun facts about it.
- Sand dollars are white because they get bleached under the sun after they wash ashore.
- Live sand dollars can be purple, brown, or red in color, and they are hairy, with these hairs being actual spines.
- Sand dollars live on the ocean floor and love being in groups. Despite the ocean’s vastness, sand dollars prefer crowded and cramped areas.
- The survival rate of sand dollars when out of the water is low. Due to this, some states impose legal sanctions when you remove these creatures from the water.
- Sand dollars’ spines are their primary tools for eating. These spines are heavily covered with tiny hairs called cilia, which help them move and eat the food particles they find in the sand.
- Sand dollars are slow eaters. It can take them up to 15 minutes to swallow their food. And digesting their meals is another story; sand dollars need a whole day to up to two days to process their food thoroughly.
- Telling the age of a sand dollar is similar to how you determine the age of a tree — by counting its rings. You also have to check the growth rings on a sand dollar’s exoskeleton. The life expectancy of sand dollars is 6-10 years.
- The sand dollar’s mouth is also called Aristotle’s lantern, named after the Greek philosopher because of its similarities to the horn lantern.
- Sometimes, young sand dollars are too light and are unable to anchor themselves, because of which they get dragged wherever the ocean currents take them. To remedy this, the young ones tend to swallow sand to help weigh them down.
- Sand dollars can stand vertically and allow their edges to get buried in the sand when the water is calm. But when the seas are rough and unforgiving, they hide under the sand and flatten themselves.
- The scientific name of sand dollars is Echinarachnius parma. And while they’re called sand dollars in the US, these creatures have many names. They are also referred to as sand cake, cake urchin, and sea biscuit. In New Zealand, they become the sea cookies and the snapper biscuit, while in South Africa, they are called the pansy shells.
- Only a few animals will waste their time preying on the sand dollar. They have minimal edible parts. Getting into their small meat also involves dealing with a hard skeleton, so not all creatures are inclined to eat them. But the ocean pout, pink sea stars, and starry flounders don’t mind feasting on sand dollars.