The Giant Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is one of the most valuable molluscs on the coral reefs of the tropical Pacific. Unfortunately it's "value" has two flavours.
Economically, the beauty of it's shell dooms this glorious creature to dusty shelves of shell factories and shell collectors. Islanders, too, collect the Triton to eat and to make into ceremonial trumpets. No triton is safe on the reefs for every person who sees one grabs it - either for fun or profit - killing it with delight at their own good fortune.
Environmentally, the value of the Giant Triton is far greater than the pretty prices paid by shell enthusiasts. The Triton preys on starfish and especially likes to pounce on the very thorny Crown of Thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci. A reef without tritons is very much like a person without sufficient cancer killing cells. Sooner or later the Crown of Thorns will undergo a population bloom on a reef, just as periodically some of our own cells turn cancerous. Without predatory controls, these population blooms increase rapidly and the cancerous growth of thousands of starfish literally devours the living coral tissues that sustain the ecology of the coral reefs.
This particular triton is nominally protected because it is within the Ilot Maitre marine reserve where visitors are not allowed to take or kill any living creature. Nobody knows for sure how long tritons live, possibly a very long time if they are left to themselves. The largest tritons are about half a metre long. The one in this photo is only 30-cm long but it's thickened shell and erosion of the apex made me think it was already pretty old.
Freddy and I left the shell where it was - wishing it well and hoping that its somewhat drab appearance will protect it from avid collectors who might be prepared to ignore the laws that forbid it's collection. With luck it will continue to protect the colorful living corals that surround it for many years. And with luck you might see it yourself if you visit Escapade Island Resort New Caledonia and go for a snorkel on this reef.
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