Scotch bonnets are North Carolina’s state shell. Why are they so hard to find?

February 2006

Probably because they live at depths between 200 and 500 feet. Divers and commercial fishermen sometimes find them in more shallow offshore waters – between 50 and 150 feet deep – but these predatory snails are considered deep-water animals. Their lovely shells are quite fragile and seldom make it on shore in one piece.

Scotch bonnets are fragile and seldom wash up whole on beaches.

About 60 different kinds of bonnets exist throughout the world. The one common to our waters is Phalium granulatum, ranging from North Carolina west to Texas and south through the West Indies to Brazil.

These slow moving gastropods glide along the ocean floor feeding on sand dollars, sea biscuits, sea urchins and other echinoderms. To feed, they dissolve the hard outer layer of their prey with a secretion containing sulfuric acid, then quickly cut an opening through the softened skeleton to expose and eat the flesh. Scotch bonnets are preyed on by crabs that can crush shells, such as stone and blue crabs.

Scotch bonnets breed in spring, with the female depositing egg capsules in clumps or rounded, woven towers up to 4 or 5 inches high. Bonnets reach maturity in one to six years.

Designated as North Carolina’s state shell in 1965, the Scotch bonnet got its name in part to honor North Carolina’s early settlers. Also, its pattern of squares and spiral bands resemble Scottish plaids, and its oval shape resembles woolen caps worn by Scottish peasants.

Beachcombers continually search for unblemished bonnet specimens, but for most the shells remain elusive. According to experienced shell seekers, the first few days after a spring storm are best for finding bonnets and, in general, islands and beaches from Ocracoke to Morehead City south are the best hunting grounds. Be sure and look behind dunes, where high tides and storm winds deposit shells, especially on barrier islands such as Cape Lookout, Shackleford Banks and Portsmouth Island.