The shingle shore at Whitstable in Kent is protected by massive wooden groynes or breakwaters. At the time of my visit, the tide was high and the flint and other mostly worm-holed pebbles were steeply banked. The flat top of the beach was stabilised by vegetation with pink and white valerian and yellow ragwort the most colourful flowers. Pale bands of white empty oyster shells (mostly the rock oyster Crassostrea gigas) were high, dry, and dull on the shingle between the groynes; while lower down splashed by waves or heaped up against the wooden sea defence structures was a great variety of other empty shells including winkles, cockles, mussels, limpets, slipper limpets, whelks, netted whelks, Manila clams, and sting winkles. These were jumbled up with wet and dry seaweed, horn wrack, small pieces of driftwood, and flotsam. There was a marked contrast in the appearance of the shells and stones between the water’s edge where the wet shells were brighter and more colourful and the upper shore where everything was dry.
I have spent a large part of my life studying oyster shells that have been excavated on archaeological excavations of sites in the British Isles dating from the last two thousand years. The shells have been found in a variety of contexts including middens which are heaps of kitchen waste including oyster and other marine mollusc shells. Strangely, I had never seen a modern equivalent until this week when I visited Whitstable on the north Kent coast. I had read all about the famous Whitstable Oyster Fishery but somehow had never got around to visiting the place.
I did not choose a very good day to see Whitstable for the first time. It was very cold, dull, and windy with the choppy sea high up the shingle beach and salt spray continuously misting my camera lens. Nonetheless, I had a great time and made some interesting discoveries – not least of which was my desire to go back ago and explore some more.
Almost the first thing I saw when I hit the shore after a coffee at the Horsebridge Gallery, was the building of the historic Royal Native Oyster Stores belonging to the Whitstable Oyster Company. It included a seafood restaurant closed at the time, and outside were two substantial heaps of empty oyster shells – middens – one against a wall and the other on the shore. A casual observer might wonder why mounds of empty shells had been left lying around and not properly disposed of. There is a good and logical reason.
The shells are being kept for cultch. The youngest form of an oyster is a free-swimming larval stage which needs to find somewhere suitable to settle down and grow. It is very particular about the type of object on which it will land and attach its embryonic shell. It has a limited time, maybe just a couple of weeks if the temperature is optimum, to find just the right place. It likes all sorts of hard substrates but it likes oyster shells best – sometimes empty ones and sometimes live ones.. Traditionally, this preference is catered for by the oyster fishermen who put down quantities of empty oyster shell as cultch on the seabed to encourage the settlement of young spat oysters. They also string old shells together to act as suspended spat catchers in the water. It is interesting to see these historic practices still in operation in an age when many oysters are bred in laboratories before being grown on in metal mesh bags on trestles covered by the tides. They use both old and new methods here.
The pictures in this post show more than one type of oyster shell. The Native British Oyster, also known as the European Flat Oyster (Ostrea edulis) is the type for which Whitstable is most famous. They also use the Pacific or Rock Oyster (Crassostrea gigas) which grows faster and is therefore a good commercial proposition, especially when in recent times the numbers of our native species have reduced.
I have written a lot about the natural variations in oyster shells belonging to the British Native, Flat, or European Oyster, Ostrea edulis Linnaeus. However variable these shells may be, it is always possible to identify the shells as belonging to that species, and to distinguish them from other species.
In Australia and the Far East, the oysters that grow wild and naturally on the tropical shores include several species of Saccostrea which can be difficult to differentiate from one another because of the diversity of their outward appearance. The morphologies of Saccostrea glomerata, Saccostrea cucullata, Saccostrea kegaki, and Saccostrea mordax, are so variable and overlapping that is not always possible to tell them apart by eye. As with so many other groups of organism currently being investigated (marine algae for example), it is only by use of mitochondrial-DNA analysis that true identities and relationships can be established (Lam and Morton 2006).
Which brings me to a discussion of the Rock Oysters that I photographed in several locations on the Queensland Coast. The images shown in this Posting were taken at Cape Tribulation in tropical Far North Queensland. Just going by the external characteristics, I suggest that they may be Saccostrea glomerata – also called the Sydney Rock Oyster. However, the differentiation of that species from Saccostrea cucullata is so problematic at times even for experts that oysters like this are frequently given both names, S. glomerata cucculata.
In following Posts I’ll show oysters growing in Yawarra Bay, Trinity Bay, and Port Douglas for comparison with these from Cape Tribulation. The shells from the rocks at the northern end of Three Mile Bay at Port Douglas look very different from the others and I think that they may be Saccostrea mordax. I’ll also refer in more detail to the Lam and Morton paper:
Lam, K. and Morton B. (2006) Morphological and mitochondrial-DNA analysis of Indo-West Pacific Rock Oysters (Ostreidae: Saccostrea species), Journal of Molluscan Studies (2006) 72: 235 -245, Oxford University Press on behalf of The Malacological Society of London.
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If you’ve ever tried opening a fresh oyster, you will know just how difficult that can be. You need just the right sort of knife with a short and very stout blunt blade and guard. You also need something to protect your hand while you attempt to prise the two valves apart. It also helps if you know just how to do it and have a lot of practice.
The trick, with the European Flat Oyster at least, is to break the ligament from the outside of the shell using the point of the blade first to relieve some of the tension created by the tremendous muscular pull within the shell that holds the two valves together. If you can achieve this, the following stage is a bit easier.
The next thing is to insert the knife between the two shells at the edge of the oyster. The idea is to keep the flat of the blade parallel and right up against the inner surface of the flat or right valve. You use the point of the blade to feel for the position of the strong adductor muscle which is contracting and holding the oyster shut. Once this is located, you can cut through it and open up the oyster. Easier said than done, actually.
It is easy to imagine that the margins of the shells might get damaged in the opening process – especially if the knife has been twisted to prise the valves apart. The first three pictures in this post show oyster shells from excavations of archaeological sites in Poole, Dorset, UK, dating from early medieval times. These were found still in their original paired valves with V-shaped or W-shaped notches on the margins of the shell. It looks as if these notches were made by a knife or even by a type of pincers to open the oyster.
The fact that the shells were found in their original pairs indicates that the ligament was not broken as a preliminary. The marginal notches are evidence for the fact that the oysters were opened while they were still alive. If they had first been steamed, boiled, or roasted, the oysters would have gaped in the heat and no tools would have been required to open them.
The last three pictures show the inner surfaces of oyster shells from archaeological excavations of a Saxon site in Southampton, Hampshire, UK. There are sharply defined cut marks in the soft white surface of each specimen. In two shells these are straight lines and in one shell they form a series of parallel arcing lines. These are most likely to be marks left by a knife, probably one in which the edge was no longer honed but rough and irregular, as the oyster shell was opened and the meat was scraped from the shell.
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