Curio shops in coastal tourist destinations are never in short supply of the Ram’s Murex/ Ramose Murex, an astounding hit among visitors. Scientifically called as Chicoreus ramosus, this shell is a gastropod under phylum Mollusca which includes snails, slugs, clams, oysters, scallops, chitons, octopods, cuttlefish and squids.
The shell is heavy, solid and large with plenty of spinuous ornamentation. Smaller snails have numerous short spines growing closely together while the larger ones have longer, pointed spines. Ram’s Murex can grow up to 35 cms. External colouration is white or sometimes brown. The outer lip and columella are pink making it a visual treat. The numerous horn-like branching adds to its beauty, making this shell a collector’s pride.
Ram’s Murex is found in plenty in the Indo-Pacific and Red sea. Skin divers collect them from depths of 5 – 10 meters when pearl fishing ceased in the Gulf of Mannar region. Once trawlers were introduced, these shells landed in large quantities as by-catch in trawl nets. Ram’s Murex also lands as by-catch from bottom set gill nets. These marine snails are carnivorous, feeding on bivalves by drilling a hole with the aid of their proboscis. Their habitat includes coral and rocky reefs, sand, rubbles and is often spotted by divers hidden among rocks.
In the Southern States of India, especially in Tamil Nadu, meat from Ram’s Murex is sold in the local market. First the operculum (technically defined as – A lid or flap covering an aperture, such as the gill cover in some fishes or the horny shell cover in snails or other molluscs) is removedwith the help of a specially made, indigenous bent knife-like tool. The meat is then sliced into thin chips and sun-dried by the coastal fisher folk. Small time vendors collect the dried product and bring it to the local market. It is fried in oil and often consumed as wafer with rice. The shell is then separately cleaned in shell shops by acid wash and polished. Cleaned shells are used to make lamp shades, pen stands or sold as whole shells.
Another interesting fact is that the operculum is an important raw material/ ingredient in the manufacture of Agarbathis (incense sticks). Interviews with middlemen show that adding this ingredient makes incense sticks burn slower. Further discussions revealed that the opercula of many species of gastropods are collected for the same purpose.
As a student a decade ago, I was able to taste the wafers made from the Ram’s Murex, which do have a ‘fishy’ odour, flavor and taste. Now, except for select areas like Tuticorin and Ramanathapuram districts of Tamil Nadu, it is rare to find these wafers in local markets. However, the Rams’ Murex shell with its milk white color and aesthetic charm continues to remain a best seller in shell shops or road side stalls.
Author: (Linnaeus, 1758)
This is copyrighted material: © Deepak Samuel