As a Marine Biologist, it is important to have quite a lot of patience because, sometimes, it takes months or even years to spot a specific animal! However, even with a lot of patience, it is almost impossible to find a Triton Shell in the Maldives nowadays, including the beautiful reefs around Coco Bodu Hithi and Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu.
You might be thinking, why are these shells so note-worthy? Maybe you remember the name Triton from the tales of Greek mythology that brought us legendary stories about the deity Triton, son of Poseidon, who would act upon his father’s orders and enforce his power over the sea by way of blowing his Conch Shell to calm the ocean. Titon’s trumpet noise also chased away Poseidon and Triton’s enemies during the war between the gods of Olympia and the Giants. These divine powers lent Triton and his Conch Shell the moniker of being the Messenger and Protector of the Seas.
Nowadays, the Triton Shell is still fulfilling part of its legend by acting as one of the protectors of our coral reefs, and the beautiful shells are counted amongst the most important predators in the Maldives! As with all predators, their main role in the ecosystem is to control the population of their immediate prey species which includes the colorful Crown of Thorns Star Fish.
Corals have many predators, and the Crown of Thorns Star Fish is one of them – an insatiable feeder that eats living corals due to its resilient wax-digesting system. Large areas of coral reefs can be eaten by outbreaks of Crown of Thorns Star Fish in a short time, as was observed at the North Male’ Atoll in January 2014. True to its name, the Crown of Thorns Star Fish defends itself thanks to an almost impregnable crown of toxic thorns. Therefore, Crown of Thorns themselves have very few specialized predators, with the Titan Trigger Fish and Triton Shells amongst them!
Triton Shells have evolved over time to be tolerant of the Crown of Thorns Star Fish’s toxins. But here is the bad news! Due to their amazing shape and color, Triton shells have been over harvested in large numbers and are being sold to tourists as well as to shell merchants abroad, which means they are insufficient in numbers to contribute to keeping Crown of Thorns populations in check any longer. With too few Tritons on the reef, and Trigger Fish having many choices within their varied diet, Crown of Thorns populations are growing even more rapidly, jeopardizing the living corals that make up reefs.
In the year 2013, Chiara, our resident Marine Biologist, was lucky enough to spot 2 Tritons. In 2014, she encountered only 1 single Triton during her snorkeling and diving excursions so far. This decreasing presence is a big loss for the fragile coral reef eco balance.
Despite the Triton shells being included in the list of Protected Marine Life in the Maldives, illegal harvesting has led to their population almost disappearing from the reefs. Even if this practice stops, it is impossible to expect them to grow back to a sufficiently large number within a short period of time.
We ask you to contribute your part to Triton Shell conservation, so please do not support Triton Shell dealing by purchasing one of these rare shells – no matter how beautiful they are! We all want for our reefs to have a chance to grow and balance their own eco system, based on a healthy balance of predator and prey!