The Volutes always seem to me to be surrounded by a slight air of mystery quite lacking from most of the other popular tropical marine families. Perhaps it is because their usual haunts are so far distant from the British Isles and the fact that they arc quite unrepresented in the European seas. A good range of specimens is usually rather harder to obtain than with most other well known types of shell, and the subtlety of their colouring rivals even the finest cowries.
There are about seventy-five species of Volute, now split into many genera, and about as many again are known fossil. They are - and always were - lovers of the warm seas, and the big majority of them now live in the Southern Hemisphere. Fossil relatives may be found in the English rocks, dating from the times when this Island enjoyed a tropical climate.
Most Volutes are deep water dwellers and often live on rocky bottoms where any kind of trawling is impossible; this is one reason for the rarity of some of the species. One or two shallow water genera however, such as Alcithoe, can be found on the Australasion beaches. Volutes inhabit deep water off the South African coasts, where the best places to seek them are often in the stomachs of certain fish; a dozen species inhabit the China Seas, eighteen off New Zealand, four are found in the Caribbean, and half a dozen on the coast of South America, where they extend almost to the cold waters of Cape Horn,
In this family the body of the animal is rather distinctive. The foot is very large, partly hiding the shell, and is used for enveloping the prey before eating it. The mantle, also, is of unusual size, and is reflected over the top of the shell as in the cowries. The shell is thus protected from incrustation and damage throughout the life of the animal and should come to the collector in a perfect glossy condition. Volutes are in fact near relations of the cowries, and when the very young shells of both are compared, it is often difficult to tell them apart. The eyes of the Volute are carried on lobes at the base of the tentacles and some species have a very small and inadequate looking operculum.
The shape of the shell is distinctive, but it is much more easily recognised than described. The columella usually bears four diagonal plaits which enlarge in size towards the aperture. Four similar plaits can be seen in Mitra, the closely allied Mitre shells, but in their case the largest is nearest the spire. The colouring of the Volutes is subtle and invariably beautiful, and it has been said that their palette is more variable than their pencil. Ivories, oranges and browns perhaps predominate, but fine and regular patterns of dots, lines or splashes in brilliant colours are often found. Maculopenlum junonia from the Caribbean is a striking example, with soft black spots scattered evenly over a cream coloured ground. It is rare enough to be much sought after by American collectors, and usually seems to fetch a high price among them.
There are of .course, some much rarer species than this and perhaps the most famous in existence is the Courtier Volute, Voluta aulica, which was known for many years only by the unique typo specimen. This belonged In the eighteenth century to the celebrated museum of the Duchess of Portland and was described in the catalogue of that collection by Dr. Solander, a Swedish pupil of Linne, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage round the World and who was afterwards employed at the British Museum arranging the valuable specimens which were brought back from that voyage. Of the Courtier Volute Dr. Solander wrote: 'No. 4021 Voluta aulica, a beautiful red-clouded species of the Wild Music kind: its country unknown, unique.' After passing through various famous collections, this specimen is now in the British Museum (Natural History), where it was joined by some similar specimens found by Cuming in the Sulu Archipelago. It was of one of these that Broderip wrote, that when considering the novelty and lovely arrange¬ment of colour in this admirable specimen, he felt that a description would convey but a faint idea of one of the most beautiful shells he ever knew. However, he accompanied his notes with a remarkably fine illustration.
Many of the nineteenth century men of science had an attractive way of occasionally becoming lyrical over the subjects of their study, and it seems to me that we can learn something from them in this respect. As regards Volutes, the enthusiasm seems very natural, since for subtlety and beauty, few things in the animal kingdom can match them.
T. E. Crowley