If you’ve hung out on Walton County’s sugary beaches or taken a dip in the clear gulf water over the past few weeks, then chances are you’ve seen a sand dollar or two. Many know what sand dollars look like, but fewer know what they actually are.
It might be easy to assume that sand dollars are like seashells – lifeless fragments that are ripe for collecting. But in fact, they are often living creatures who need your help getting home.
Sand dollars are echinoderms, and are related to sea urchins, sea cucumbers and sea stars. They are basically flat sea urchins.
What to do when you find a sand dollar?
Sand dollars cannot live without water for more than just a few minutes. The best thing you can possibly do if you find a sand dollar is to quickly and gently place it underwater on the sandy floor. Both the sand dollar and our vibrant ecosystem will thank you!
How do you know if a sand dollar is still alive?
Gently hold the sand dollar in the palm of your hand and observe the spines. If they are still moving, it is alive. Sand dollars lose their spines very soon after they die. Another way is by observing its color, which changes due to overexposure in the sun. After a sand dollar dies, its color will change from a brownish-purple (living) to silvery-white (dead).
Also, if you’ve ever held a sand dollar, chances are it left a substance on your hand called echinochrome, which most likely turned your skin a little yellow. If you notice this after placing a sand dollar on your palm, then it’s another a good indicator that the sand dollar is still alive.
Fun Fact: Sand Dollars have five teeth.
Is it legal to collect sand dollars?
Unfortunately, sand dollars are unregulated here. However, we sincerely ask our locals and guests to please return living sand dollars to their home in the sea. Teach your children and peers the right behavior by being thoughtful and protective of our precious environment. These are living creatures who play an important role in our ecosystem. The best things to take home are beautiful photos and timeless memories!
Karley Funderburk is a former 30A Intern.