Epitonium varicosa Lamarck, 1822
Live collected by local fishermen
on reef at 15m
of Masbate Island, Central Philippines
For November we have a very special pair of shells, two cousins – one is very famous and the other quite obscure and seldom seen. Epitonium scalare, Linne 1758 is the Precious Wentletrap, a shell of incredible beauty that hundreds of years ago was so precious it graced the cabinets of emperors and queens. It’s extreme rarity led the Chinese to make fabulous fakes from rice paste. The name Wentletrap comes from a Dutch word meaning spiral staircase and it is indeed an accurate description. Epitonium scalare’s whorls do not touch each other while its extended ribs form the the staircase. It has a porcelain surface.
Epitonium varicosa Lamarck, 1822 was a rare shell until modern collecting methods made it more available, however we’re guessing even advanced collectors have never seen a specimen! It has an amazing surface pattern and texture that photographs do not do justice to.
Wentletraps are predatory foragers and primarily feed on anemones. Most members of the family are quite small. Both specimens are from the Philippines and are of gem quality, live collected with the operculums preserved. Both are 55mm in length and about as large as any freshly collected shells that are likely to found on the market today.
Donated by Richard Kent
The following is reprinted from University of Chicago and is attributed to Penelope. It is fascinating reading.
The first published figure of Epitonium scalare (Precious Wentletrap) appeared in Rumphius’ D’Amboinsche Rariteitkamer (“Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet”) and was added posthumously by the editor, “perhaps because his Honor did not encounter them, or perhaps because they do not occur in those regions.” He comments that 500 guilders had been refused for a specimen, three of which were then known to exist. One was owned by Cosimo de Medici (to whom Rumphius had been obliged to sell his collection some twenty years earlier) and another by Johan de la Faille, a wealthy burgher from Delft and its chief magistrate. There also was a shell said to be somewhere in England. Half a century later, Linnaeus still considered the Precious Wentletrap to be rare (Systema Naturae, 10th ed. p.713, where it is called Turbinis scalaris). Even by the nineteenth century, when the shell had become more common, it still was celebrated for its beauty. One can understand why. The elegant whorls of the wentletrap do not touch as they coil from spire to aperture but are held in place by a flaring set of ribs (costae). These ribs, which are the margins of its former aperture, mark the growth of the shell and enclose it much like the treads of a spiral staircase. It is from this appearance that its popular and scientific names derive: wentletrap from the Middle Dutch wendeltrappe for a winding or spiral staircase, and scalare from the Latin scalae for a ladder or flight of stairs.
Lamarck had called the shell Scalaria pretiosa (from the Latin pretiosus, precious or valuable) because of the high price it fetched, as indeed it did. About 1750, the Emperor Francis I, husband of Maria Theresa, had paid 4000 guilders for a specimen. Three years later, four shells sold in England for more than £75. When the collection of the French ambassador to The Hague was auctioned in 1757, an E. scalare sold for 1611 livres (for comparison, Diderot was paid 3500 livres to edit his Encyclopédie that year). Ten years later, a two-inch specimen sold for 900 livres. The Queen of Sweden, the patron of Linnaeus (who utilized her collection in describing many of the shells in his Systema), owned a wentletrap, as did Catherine the Great (who later purchased Diderot’s library and employed him to care for it) and the Duchess of Portland. Prior to about 1800, the Dutch controlled access to the shell’s habitat. Eventually, specimens began to be imported from China, including cleverly fashioned fakes made of rice paste. Ironically, these fragile counterfeits, of which only a very few are thought to survive, are more rare than the beautiful porcelain-like shells they imitated.
Wentletraps feed primarily on sea anemones, from which they draw nourishment through their proboscis. It has been suggested that the purple dye which is released when the mollusk dies is used as an anesthetizing agent in feeding. But this assumption does not seem to be warranted.