Seashell picture: Interior view of a pair of joined black-stained European Flat Oyster shells (Ostrea edulis Linnaeus) on the sandy beach at Rhossili Bay, Gower, South wales, UK (P1040378aBlog1) 

Have you ever wondered why some of the seashells you find are coloured black – like these oyster shells? Fresh empty shells, and the shells of the living animals, are not coloured like this. Oysters, for example, are usually a light creamy colour and sometimes have concentric bands of pink or purple – though sometimes you can find the flat shells with a browny-black horn-like outer covering. The dark colour does not, however, penetrate through the entire shell matrix.

The reason for this blackening of the shell lies deep down in the sediments of the beach. Very fine, poorly sorted sands can usually hold onto water as the tide goes out and also contain a lot of organic detritus. The sand grains provide an attachment surface for huge numbers of bacteria and diatoms; and support a rich fauna.

There is a sharp boundary between 5 to 15 centimetres down where the sand changes from yellow, through a band of grey, to black. Above the grey there is enough oxygen in the water to oxidise all the waste products of the vast community of micro-organisms (aerobic respiration). Below the grey boundary, the black sand has no oxygen. Here, some bacteria produce hydrogen sulphide that reacts with iron in the sand to give black iron sulphides (anaerobic respiration); it is these compounds that stain buried sea shells. As the black iron sulphides work their way upwards by animal actions, through the sediments that still contain oxygen, they are oxidised to ferric oxide which gives the yellow colour to sand.

Seashell picture: Black-stained Flat Oyster shells, Ostrea edulis Linnaeus, washed ashore onto the sandy beach at Rhossili Bay, Gower, South Wales, UK (P1040379aBlog2) 

Revised post that was first published 26 February 2009


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9 Replies to “Black oysters at Rhossili Bay”

  1. I collect deep black beautiful oyster shells on the Gulf Coast in Florida and make jewelry with them. This is the first esplantion I have found for the color of these beautiful shells on the internet, and I have an undergraduate degree in marine biology. Do you have any references you could send to me Thank you.


  2. Hello, Caty. Here are a couple of references to the blackening by burial phenomenon. Of course, I cannot tell whether the beautiful black coloration of the oyster shells which you find in Florida is created by the same process of prolonged exposure to black iron sulphides deep in the sediments but it seems a likely explanation. It is possible that the archaeological literature, particularly on artefacts recovered by marine archaeology, may provide more details on the blackening process.

    Dale, N. G. (1974) Bacteria in intertidal sediments: factors related to their distribution. Limnology and Oceanography, 19, pp 509-518.

    Hayward P. J. (1994) Animals of Sandy Shores. Naturalists’ Handbooks 21. Richmond Publishing Co Ltd. ISBN 0 85546 293 0, pp 10-11.


  3. Thank you for the information on why oyster shells are black. I live in Corpus Christi Texas on North Padre Island and have time now that I am retired to walk the beach every day. Have so many questions about the nature I’m seeing and your blog has a lot of answers.
    Thank you for your expertise.

    Liked by 1 person

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