Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Giving It to You Straight – Toothshell Hermit Crabs and Wampum Tuskshells

Giving it to you straight!
This was my most exciting “find” for April.

This is a Toothshell Hermit Crab in the shell of a Wampum Tuskshell. The shells were used as currency by First Nations. Read on!

THIS species of hermit crab does not have curled body to hook and hold a snail shell home (like most hermit crabs).

THIS hermit crab species’ body is straight which means that it can’t live in a shell made by a marine snail. Its niche is to fit into the straight shells of Tuskshells or, if need be, the tube of calcareous tubeworm species* which is also straight.

Toothshell Hermit Crabs are only up to 0.8 cm long (Orthopagurus minimus).

Wampum Tuskshells are to only 5 cm long (Antalis pretiosa). They are molluscs belonging to the Tuskshell class (Scaphopoda).

My excitement is about this hermit crab species’ adaptations and that it is so rare to see a Tuskshell because they are usually burrowed deep in the sandy or shell bottom. The best chance of seeing one is as the home of a Toothshell Hermit. But then, there’s ALSO the great cultural significance of Tuskshells!

Wampum Tuskshells burrow themselves into the ocean bottom with their foot and use their sticky tentacles to trap microscopic food particles and move them to their mouths. Specifically, they are reported to feed on single-celled amoeboid protists called forminifera.
Crappy sketch is by yours truly.

Tuskshell species (also known as Dentalia and Toothshells) are of great importance to First Nations. They were used as currency and are still used in regalia in some areas.

The shells of these snails were used for over 2,500 years from what is now known as the Arctic to Baja California and across to the Great Lakes. The most important species of tuskshell is reported to have been the one I chanced upon recently, the Wampum Tuskshell.

One of the most important areas for harvesting these animals for their shells (know as hiqua / haiqua) was Quatsino Sound off northwest Vancouver Island.

The snail’s previous scientific name even translates into “valuable tooth” = Dentalium pretiosum. In part what made tuskshells so valuable was that they were difficult to get. But, not only were they scarce, they were also great as currency because of their beauty, being easy to transport, and because they could not be counterfeited.

The snail is often found in deeper water (between 9 to 75 m), burrowed in the sand. The Quatsino People engineered a way of catching them with an apparatus that looks like the head of a broom. To get this down to the shells, stick extensions were added a length at a time to get as deep as 21 m. All this while working from a canoe!

I hope this little hermit crab, in this little shell, adds to a BIG world of connection for you.

Photo from the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Accompanying text: “Tooth or tusk shells commonly referred to as #dentalium is a scaphopod mollusk. Dentalium was harvested off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada by tribes. Today, most commercial dentalium is harvested and sold from Asia. In the Plains, dentalium was a highly sought after trade product from the Plateau Tribes. Beautiful hues of smooth pink and white were prized and revered by Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda women. Artists created dress capes, earrings, hair ornaments, and chokers to wear during times of ceremony and celebration.

Dress detail, #Lakota Northern Plains, ca. 1885. Selvage wool, dentalium shells, glass beads, silk ribbon, cotton thread. NA.202.40.”
From Money from the Sea: A Cross-cultural Indigenous Science Problem-solving Activity by Gloria Snively. Left: “The Dentalium “broom” was lowered to the shell beds by adding extensions to the handle. Illustration by Laura Corsiglia (2007).” Right: [In 1991, Phil Nuytten reconstructed the broom and submerged in his “Newt Suit” to observe how the broom worked.] “Phil Nuytten’s dentalia-harvesting broom outfitted with a weighted board. Loosening the ropes lowers the weighted board, an action that partially closes the broom head for grasping the shells. Illustration by Laura Corsiglia (2007).
From Money from the Sea: A Cross-cultural Indigenous Science Problem-solving Activity by Gloria Snively. “Extent of dentalium trade. Illustration by Karen Gillmore.”
Another perspective on the same Toothshell Hermit Crab I chanced upon on April 8, 2023 while diving north of Port Hardy in the Territory of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw (the Kwak̕wala-speaking Peoples) with God’s Pocket Resort. Depth was around 13 meters. Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson.

See below for additional information from the wonderful lesson plan from the book edited by Gloria Snively and Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams – Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science.

Dentalium Shell Money Story

“For 2,500 years, until the early 20th century, North American Indigenous peoples used the dazzling white cone-shaped shell of a marine mollusk as currency. Dentalium pretiosum [note that the species was reclassified to Antalis pretiosa] is a . . . mollusk of the class Scaphopoda, a group also known as tusk shells because of their slightly curved, conical shape . . . Dentalia inhabit coarse, clean sand on the surface of the seabed in areas of deep water, and are often found in association with sand dollars and the purple olive snail (Olivella biplicata).

As predators, they use their streamlined shape and muscular foot to move surprisingly quickly in pursuit of tiny single-celled prey called forminifera. Aboriginal peoples used many substances as trade goods, but dentalia were the only shells to become currency. Harvested from deep waters off the coast of Vancouver Island, they were beautiful, scarce, portable, and not easily counterfeited.

In 1778, Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy visited the village of Yuquot (Friendly Cove) on Nootka Island off the west coast of Vancouver Island, BC. The island’s fur trading potential led the British East India Company to set up a trading post at Yuquot, which became a focal point for English, Spanish, and American traders and explorers.

Trade between Euro-Americans and Aboriginal peoples was initially conducted under the watchful eye of a powerful chief named Maquinna who acted as middleman, purchasing sea otter pelts using dentalia as currency and then reselling the pelts to white traders in exchange for other goods.

Once the white traders realized that shells were used as money, they began trading directly with dentalia harvesters among the Nuu-cha-nulth and Kwakwaka‘wakw people. The center of the fur trade subsequently moved to Nahwitti, a Kwakwaka‘wakw village on the northern tip of Vancouver Island (Nuytten, 2008b, p. 23), and dentalium shell money became a currency of cross-cultural trade, called Hy‘kwa in Chinook Jargon—a trade language spoken as a lingua franca in the Pacific Northwest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The currency was used throughout Alaska, down the Pacific coast as far as Baja California, and across the prairies of the United States and southern Canada to the Great Lakes.

In addition to their use as currency, the pearly white dentalium shells also served as decorative wealth. They were fashioned into necklaces, bracelets, hair adornments, and dolls. The shells also decorated the clothing of both men and women.

It is generally agreed that the best dentalium shells were those harvested by the Ehattesaht and Quatsino people from shell beds off the west coast of Vancouver Island. These beds lay deep underwater—too deep for divers to hold their breath, too dark for them to see, and too cold to sustain a diving operation—so the Quatsino people designed specialized gear to harvest the money shells. Historical records indicate that a device with a very long handle and a bottom end resembling a “great, stiff broom” was used to pluck live dentalia from the seabed . . . Three of these implements still exist in museums in Victoria, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington.”

4-minute video from December 2022: “Hunter Old Elk, Assistant Curator of the Center of the West’s Plains Indian Museum, shows us a Dakota dress cape adorned with 1,500 – 2,000 dentalium shells

Please note that dentalia / tuskshells do not move from one shell to the other. Their shell grows.

From the Oregon Historical Society:

Tuskshells / Dentalia ” . . . were of great value prized mark of wealth and status, typically displayed as ornaments in clothing and headdresses, used as jewelry, and even used in some places as a type of currency.

Most dentalium entering the indigenous trade network of the Pacific Northwest originated off the coast of Vancouver Island. Chicklisaht, Kyuquot, and Ehattesaht communities of the Northern Nuu-chah-nulth, inhabitants of the west coast of the island, were the primary source of the shells. However, the Kwakwaka’wakw of Quatsino Sound and Cape Scott, on the eastern coast, were also large producers. Harvesters would work from their ocean-going canoes, extending specially-constructed long poles to the dentalium beds on the ocean floor. At the end of the long poles were large brushes that were pushed into the mollusk beds, ensnaring dentalium in the process.”


Gloria Snively and Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams (2016) – Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Chapter 11 – Money from the Sea: A Cross-cultural Indigenous Science Problem-solving Activity

Quartux Journal – Dentalia Shell Money: Hi-qua, Alika-chik

Oregon Historical Society (2003) – Dentalia Shell & Bead Necklace

Coast View (2022) – Quatsino, Quatsino Sound

Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (2022) – The currency of dentalium shells 

National Geographic Magazine (1993) via Dentalia Harvesting

The Midden (1990) – A Curious Currency Part 1: Haiqua shells on the Northwest Coast in the 19th century

*Note that there is another straight-bodied species of hermit crab in the northeast Pacific Ocean whose home is almost always the tubes of calcareous Tubeworms; the Tubeworm Hermit (Discorsopagurus schmitti).

From National Geographic Magazine (1993) via Dentalia Harvesting

9 Responses to “Giving It to You Straight – Toothshell Hermit Crabs and Wampum Tuskshells”

  1. Violet R

    Absolutely fascinating. This is my favourite post of yours, thanks very much 🙂

  2. Mike Morrell

    More thanks, Jackie. I’ve never understood how Dentalia lived nor seen the Hermit Crab in situ.

  3. Judy L

    amazing and wonderful. Your keen eye. From finding such a small creature to knowing the significance of your find to sharing all this history. Thank you


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