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How To Tell If A Sand Dollar Is Alive

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Got a sand dollar but don’t know if it’s alive?

While searching as much of Jekyll Island as possible looking orbs as part of the treasure hunt, we found literally hundreds of sand dollars on the beautiful beach. The first thing I do is to look to see if a sand dollar is alive.

But people online, don’t know me. So when I added my pics of these beautiful sand dollars to my Instagram DeniseTheBeachLover and Facebook I Love The Beach Trips Communities, it created a wave of comments, some judgmental.

90% of folks LOVED seeing the sand dollars. They were perfect, actually.

The other 10%? Not so much. They all thought I had taken live sand dollars out of the water.

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sand dollar

Two things. First one. I am a bleeding heart. I would never hurt any living creature.

Matter of fact, as kids, my mother had put those mousetraps with the sticky bottoms out on the porch and caught a mouse.

I was so upset about the little guy trying to chew his leg off that I got my brother to take it out of the trap and take it to the woods.

Add to that, I know from years of beachcombing whether anything is alive or dead. I picked up a scallop one time during scallop season in the Gulf, and it proceeded to slam its shell shut when I looked at it.

You got it. It was alive and back in the water it went. Same with sand dollars, conch shells and any other water animal.

There is no way I would take any living creature from its environment. Period.

Those comments on the Facebook beach page got me to thinking. Maybe a quick post on how to check if a sand dollar is alive or not should be written.

And I decided yes so here you go. Learn how to tell if a sand dollar is alive with this simple guide below.

Check Out These Five Ways To See If It Is

Know the signs and tips to identify a living sand dollar for your next beach trip.

Want to know if a sand dollar is alive? It can be tricky because the signs of life can be subtle. But with some patience and observation, you can learn to recognize when a sand dollar is living and when it’s not.

Tips on how to tell if a sand dollar is alive.

Check for movement.

Flip your sand dollar over and gently shake it, if you see ANY movement you will know that it is currently alive. If you have picked up a sand dollar that is alive, gently return it to the water.

Image from Biology Dictionary. I do not have any live sand dollars.

If the sand dollar’s legs/spines called ciliea move in any way, even just a little bit, it is most likely alive. The movement may not be very much, so look carefully.

If it does move then there is a good chance that the sand dollar is currently alive.

Once more if you did not see movement when you turned the sand dollar over, shake it gently for about 10 seconds. Check again to see if you can detect any subtle movements.

If there are no movements or signs of life after several attempts, then the sand dollar is likely dead.

Examine the Animal’s Back Side to Look for a Heart Shape Pattern and Tube Feet.

Check the bottom of the sand dollar for vacuum like suction cups. These are called tube feet and are used by a live sand dollar to move around in the seabed.

Usually live sand dollars will have fluid flowing through their bodies. They often also have a small tuft of fur-like material at their center, this is called an oral disc, and it contains tube feet which feed the sand dollar with debris from the ocean floor.

To confirm though, you should always check if there is any movement, as I mentioned above, once you shake them gently as above.

Observe Coloration of the Sand Dollar

When looking for a live sand dollar, another thing to look out for is the color. Live sand dollars will usually be white or gray with purple markings around their edges, whereas dead ones are usually dull brown, like stones.

Sand Dollars In My Hand from Jekyll Island

To make sure that the sand dollar has not been recently washed away from the beach, check for additional signs of shells and other matter from the ocean on its underside.

If it’s part of a broken shell or coral, this likely means it has died and is no longer alive.

A live sand dollar will have no blemishes along its perimeter, so it would stand out as compared to an old washed-up specimen.

Feel for Any Rough Patches or Texture Changes.

Examine the sand dollar closely. Look for the small round holes along its top side.

These small holes are its water glands which will open and close when exposed to seawater, another sign that your specimen is still alive.

Those with an odd color or texture could be signs of a dead sand dollar. Once you have decided it is alive, quickly relocate it back to its original environment.

Knowing if a sand dollar is alive or not is important for two reasons. First, it is illegal to collect living sand dollars from their natural environment.

Secondly, these unique creatures must be placed back in the same area where they were found to ensure its survival.

Consequently, being able to differentiate between a live and dead one is essential for any beachcomber, especially since they can survive out of water up to five hours.

If you are unsure at any time if the sand dollar is alive or not, err on the side of caution. Put it back in the shallow water.

What to do with sand dollars

So you have checked and rechecked and know for a fact that the sand dollar you are holding is in fact dead. What do you do with it?

There are two options. The first is to put out in the sun and let it do its magic.

Keep in mind, however, that it may take months for it to completely bleach white.

The other option is to gently place the sand dollars into a bowl of clear, clean water. The water will turn brown and look dirty.

Change the water every two to three hours until it no longer turns dirty or has any brown color to it. Empty that water out and add 3 parts water and 1 part bleach or mild peroxide to the bowl.

Again gently place your sand dollars into the bowl and let them soak 10–15 minutes. Be sure to take them out in under 15 minutes, so they don’t crack or become brittle.

After you remove them from the bowl, place outside in the sun, turning them over every hour or so.

Sand Dollar Collector Coffee Cup

There are so many things you can do with your sand dollars and seashells especially if you are crafty. For me, I am not crafty, but after they have been bleached, I like to place them in a bowl for display.

Let me know what you do with your beachcombing finds. I’ll add them to my list that is published here and as well as Facebook and Instagram to inspire others.

p.s. Still not sure? Check out the information from here on sand dollars: National Geographic

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About Denise

Denise Sanger lives a life split between her love for fitness and her passion for travel particularly to the BEACH.  Denise also has a love of marketing and lives in beautiful Suwannee County, Florida. You can find out more about Denise here: About Denise

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