Found: The Natural History of Everyday Things — Blue

A Blue Mussel with what my Mom Calls Helmet Shells

This is a new aspect of my blog called Found: The Natural History of Everyday Things. It’s a weekly installment dedicated to taking the time to investigate the life of things found outside that I, and maybe some of you too, hate to say but take for granted. A chance to become better acquainted with the quiet, yet defining, characters of the skis, climbs, hikes, rides and paddles that are so much a part of my life. Maybe yours too…

12:35 p.m.; North Shore, Massachusetts—42 33’ 41.80” N 70 48’ 15.57” W; Elevation 1 meter. 

BLUE MUSSEL Mytilus edulis: 

Dad wanted to play bocce. Mom and I leapt at the idea—anything to support his desire for more than sitting in his chair for hours on end reading. He is after all, fighting cancer. Fighting hard and he is exhausted.

So we walked to the beach, the low-slung November sun pumping out its last remaining rays. It was so still with just shifts in color left as the only differentiation between water, sky and sand.

I picked up the mussel while sitting out a round. Predictably Dad was winning as he always does. I’ve seen hundreds of mussels walking the beach over the years—their bloated crescent shape is rough, like my junior high school wood-shop projects. Nothing to compare to the delicate symmetry of the other shells littering the beach.

The color captured me. The deep, periwinkle blue—the same shade as a thick thundercloud’s belly—reminded me of home. Summer afternoons in the Northern Rockies. Home, where there were moments I could pretend none of this was happening.

Scientists have discovered that the same deep blue shell I admired, bears the marks indicative of an astonishingly fast evolution that the mussels have taken to better protect themselves against the Asian shore crab, an exotic species. Lacking any defense against the crabs, blue mussels in New England have begun growing thicker shells, which protect them against these predatory invaders. All of this in the span of 15 years.

I’ve never liked eating them—too much like the phlegm that slides down my throat when I have a bad cold. But each year around 2,000 tons are harvested in New England alone. Add another 13,000 tons when you figure in the rest of the country. Good thing female mussels release an estimated 25 million eggs per season. Know how to tell a male from a female? Orange meat means it’s female. White is male. I wouldn’t know but apparently they taste exactly the same.