State shell. The lettered olive (Oliva sayana) was declared the official state shell in legislation approved by Governor Richard Riley on May 8, 1984. In the act, legislators described the South Carolina coast as “one of the most widely promoted areas . . . for recreation and tourism” and noted that shelling along the state’s beaches had become “increasingly popular among residents as well as with the tourist trade.”
The lettered olive is prolific on the South Carolina coast. Dr. Edmund Ravenel, a Charleston physician who attained international renown as a pioneer conchologist, first recognized the lettered olive in 1834. He assembled a famous collection of mollusks from the waters and wetlands of the Charleston area and published the catalog of this collection in 1834. That work contained descriptions of several new mollusks, including the lettered olive.
Oliva sayana is a predatory snail that lives in sandy environments from the intertidal zone down to twenty feet. It spends most of its time burrowing through the sand in search of prey. The shells are two to two and one-half inches in length and are colored grayish tan with brownish-purple zigzag bands. Their supposed resemblance to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs gave rise to the name “lettered.”
The shell, much prized by collectors, is highly polished because the mollusk’s mantle, or shell building tissue, is large and envelops the entire shell while the creature is burrowing, protecting it from corrosive sand. Lettered olives are sometimes seen on the surface of the sand at night, and it is believed that they can flap their mantle lobes and swim through the shallow water, increasing their predatory range.
Abbott, R. Tucker. American Seashells. 2d ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1974.
Sanders, Albert E., and William D. Anderson, Jr. Natural History Investigations in South Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Stephens, Lester D. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.