When you’re at the beach, there are few things more fun than combing through the sand for natural souvenirs like shells and coral. Most of the time, these objects have long been abandoned by the organisms that once called them home. But as one person recently discovered, that’s not always the case!

A woman had been strolling along a beach when, right where the ocean met the shore, she spotted something commonly found by beachgoers. She plucked it from the sand, but when she took a closer look, she was shocked…

In 2012, a woman was walking along an undisclosed beach and combing the sand for something fun to collect to display at home. Down at the shore, with her feet in the white foam of the crashing waves, she found just what she was looking for.

Chris Nichols / Flickr

It was a sand dollar! Flattened, dried-out, and dead sea urchins, sand dollars aren’t exactly rare, but they’re the perfect collector’s item for beachgoers. This particular sand dollar, though, was less than ideal for bringing home…

Sea Something / YouTube

This woman was no stranger to sand dollars, and from the moment she picked it up, she knew something was dramatically different. She could spot one of the most telling signs on the back side of the sand dollar…

Sea Something / YouTube

 With your typical sand dollar—the one your kids might stuff into a beach bucket and plop onto their dresser at home—”you’d be able to clearly see a set of grooves and an opening at the bottom,” the woman said. But the one she held in her hand was different.

Sea Something / YouTube

No hole bore into the heart of the sand dollar, and no grooved veins appeared along the dollar’s flattened underside. Instead, thousands of broom-brush bristles coated it. That was when she zoomed in her camera…

Sea Something / YouTube

Those bristles were moving! Surely, this had to be some trick of the light. Nothing could be moving on a flattened, dried-out, and dead sea urchin, right? The woman explained the reason…

Sea Something / YouTube

This sand dollar was alive, and those moving bristles were acting as a conveyor belt of sorts. Sand dollars feed on microscopic organisms from the sea floor, and these bristles moved for one specific reason…

Sea Something / YouTube

The bristles helped the sand dollar to eat! They allowed the sea critter to trap plankton, then move it along toward the center of their body, where its mouth was. The woman was astounded to see that this sand dollar was alive, and it raised some tough questions…

Frédéric Ducarme / Wikimedia

Do most people know that not all sand dollars are dead when they collect them from a beach? How many people have unknowingly scooped up a living organism to take home and display? A story from a South Carolina town proved this was actually a frighteningly common occurrence…

Lindsay Schwartz / Flickr

Writing for The Island Packet—a publication for residents of southern Beaufort County in South Carolina—Mandy Matney (pictured) described a haven for sand dollars, the beach city known as Hilton Head. She wrote…

Mandy Matney / Facebook

“When you come to Hilton Head, you are treated to the magic of wildlife—something that has kept generations of families addicted to the island, year after year.” And it was there she saw a horrendous scene.


“More than 30 light brown sand dollars were laid out in rows near the dunes,” she wrote, “way too far from the shore for them to have gotten there naturally.” They’d dried out, even though, from what Mandy could tell, they hadn’t been out of the water long.

Mandy Matney – The Island Packet

The closer Mandy inspected the scene, the more stark the reality had become. Someone had pulled living sand dollars—sea urchins—out of the ocean “for a personal project [and] left them to die.” The scene stuck with the writer for some time.

Mandy Matney – Island Packet / Facebook

Who had done the misdeed? A kid? A tourist? “It was also a crowded day at the beach,” she wrote. “I’m sure plenty of people saw this sand dollar killer in action and did nothing to stop him or her.” And that brought the question back to the real issue at hand…

What’s Inside / YouTube

How many people know that not all sand dollars are just ready-made decorations? How many beachgoers truly know how to tell one that’s dead from natural causes and one that’s still alive? Mandy underscored the importance of education.

Florida Sand Dollar Art / Etsy

“Hurting the sand dollars would hurt the fish, which in turn, would hurt the dolphins and sharks. And so on,” she wrote. “We shouldn’t test their role in the scheme of things.” So what signs could beachgoers look for to make sure they weren’t upsetting nature?

The obvious sign of a living sand dollar, as the woman at the undisclosed beach pointed out, were the moving bristles and lack of grooves on the back. But beachgoers could look at other factors to avoid plucking a living sand dollar from the sea, too.

The Island Packet

“They’ll be quite light” or almost a beige, and “sometimes they’ll be covered in seaweed. A dead sand dollar is actually just the skeleton—also called the test—of the once-living organism. Another sign to look for?

Sea Something / YouTube

Look at your fingers after picking up a sea dollar. Living sea dollars produce echinochrome, a harmless substance that’ll stain your fingers yellow. All of those signs should help people avoid plucking a living sea dollar from its home ever again!

The Island Packet

You can learn even more about telling dead and living sand dollars apart—which would be a vital tool for keeping the ocean’s ecosystem chugging along. Every beachgoer should know what to look for!

Have you ever seen a living sand dollar? Hopefully people will respect these living creatures enough to leave them alone!

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