The Lion’s Paw Scallop
By Claire Ferguson
The lion’s paw scallop, Nodipecten nodosus, is a species of mollusk that gets its name from the knobs decorating the ridges of its shell that resemble the long, knuckled claws of a lion. Much less dangerous to touch than its namesake, this shell can be found deep in the tropical waters off the Atlantic Coast, from Cape Hatteras to the West Indies, and as far south as Brazil.
The Pacific Coast also has a population of lion’s paws called Nodipectin subnodosus, native to the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico and southward to the western coast of Peru.
Scallops come in a variety of colors from reds and purples to more rare oranges and yellows. The white albino paw is the least common and most valuable to collectors. “The lion’s paw is one of my most favorite shells of all,” says Florida shell collector Amanda Collett. “Since shelling on the Eastern coast of Florida, I’ve been very lucky to have found a wide range of sizes and colors.”
As their habitat is deep offshore waters, perfect shells are rare to find on the beach and are highly sought after by serious collectors. “Hinged lion’s paw shells are only found by divers and commercial fishermen, because the scallops like deep water and shade, usually living on rocks inside of caves, shipwrecks, or in dark shady areas up to 160 feet deep,” Amanda says.
Though beautiful, the lion’s paw scallop is also valuable as a food source. The tough shells contain sweet, tender white meat, which was a traditional food in subsistence fishing communities. In the 1980s, trawling boats arrived in Brazil and the their fishing practices did not respect the mollusk’s ecosystem or the native communities that depend on them. Overfishing of the scallops, known locally as vieiras, caused the supply to reach critically low levels in only under a decade, threatening extinction. In 1997, fishermen developed a method called espinhel, where the scallops are raised in mesh bags attached to lines underwater and harvested after two to three years when they reach a minimum size.
Lion’s paw scallops are still recovering and will hopefully make a full comeback through the work of locals and companies using responsible aquaculture techniques to grow them.
All photos courtesy of Amanda Collett.
Learn more about seashells
Learn more about identifying shells, the history of seashell collecting, great shelling beaches, and the lives of the animals who make the shells we find on the beach. Articles ›
No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2022 issue.