Scaphopods live their adult lives buried in sand or mud, with their head end pointed downwards. Only the narrow posterior end of the shell sticks up into the seawater for water exchange and waste expulsion. Gills have been lost in the scaphopods, so the mantle tissue not only produces the shell, but also serves the function of gills in obtaining oxygen from seawater. The mantle is fused into a tube that surrounds the body of the animal, but it is open at both ends. Water is circulated around the mantle cavity by the action of numerous cilia. When the dissolved oxygen runs low, the water is ejected through the top end of the shell by contraction of the foot.
Scaphopods past and present: At left is a collection of fossil scaphopod shells from the Miocene of Baluchistan, Pakistan. A fragmentary shell can be seen end-on at the right side of the image. The photo at right displays two kinds of living species: the top specimen is Dentalium laqueatum, the Reticulated Tuskshell. It was dredged from a depth of 400 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Venice, Florida. The three bottom specimens are Graptacme lepta, the Straight Ivory Tuskshell. They were found on a beach in northeastern Florida following a storm.
Adult scaphopods move and search for food with their buried head. To do this, the animal extends its muscular foot outwards, then expands a muscled disc that surrounds the far end of the foot. Once the disc is spread out, it will serve as an anchor for the scaphopod to pull against.
The head itself is not very conspicuous. There are tiny sense organs called statocysts with which food can be detected, but otherwise no trace of eyes or other features normally associated with a head. Threadlike cilia-bearing tentacles (known as captacula) probe for food, such as forams, detritus, and even the occasional buried bivalve, and bring it to the mouth where a large radula grinds it up.
Adult scaphopods are either male or female. The female releases her eggs one at a time, and upon hatching, the young animal will go through both a free-swimming trochophore and veliger stage (like all molluscs), before settling into an adult form in the muddy sea floor. Adults may live at depths of 4570 meters.
The oldest fossil scaphopods have been found in Devonian rocks, and are assigned to the genera Plagioglypta and Prodentalium. Some Ordovician fossils have been described as possibly older scaphopod fossils, but these may also be pteropods (a group of gastropods) or the fossilized remains of worm burrows. Part of the problem is that the oldest known fossils of tusk shells have little surface detail. They tend to be smooth, and do not have the slight curvature that characterizes later fossils of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. By the Cretaceous, fossils with well-defined longitudinal ridges appear, as in modern species of Dentalium and its close relatives (Family Dentaliidae).
Despite their unusual features, it is generally believed that the closest relatives of scaphopods are the bivalves. Like scaphopods, bivalves have a retractile foot which they use to burrow. They also share the reduced head and attachment pattern to their shell. Others have pointed out certain similarities to the gastropoda, or have suggested that scaphopods derive from the extinct rostoconchs. There are anywhere from 750 to 1200 species of scaphopod, with about half that number being the extinct species, and the other half, recent ones.
Shells of the genus Dentalium were once used in necklaces and as money (often termed "wampum") by Amerinds of the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to California. The shells were collected on strings, and could be worn or hung.
For more information about scaphopods:
Page created by Brian Speer, 2000. Miocene scaphopods photo by Brian Speer; Dentalium laqueatum and Graptacme lepta courtesy of www.jaxshells.org; scaphopod anatomy by Ivy Livingstone, © BIODIDAC.