Morton is a mystery man, a gentleman whose identity has been lost in the annals of history and the forgetfulness of an eclectic scientist. Unfortunately, neither I nor you, my good reader, are destined to unravel the mystery of who he was.
The Morton in question is the namesake of a small clam, Morton’s egg cockle. This bivalve has washed up in large numbers on the shores of Sengekontacket Pond.
Measuring up to an inch, the outside shells of this mollusk are smooth and can have a brown zigzag pattern. The inside of the shell is yellow with a dark brown mark on one side. While it can be found along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia down to the Gulf of Mexico, this fall season has brought large numbers of this usually buried clam from their underwater homes onto some of our beaches.
Morton’s egg cockle was named in 1830 by one Timothy Abbot Conrad. Even if we will never know who Morton was, we can be mollified with the knowledge that Conrad was quite a character himself.
Born in New Jersey in 1803, Conrad began his love affair with shelled organisms early in life. In his 20s, he became an honorary curator of the Academy of Natural Sciences and went on to work for the New York and North Carolina Geological Surveys and the Smithsonian Institute. He was a conchologist, paleontologist, and a geologist. Throughout his life, he described and named hundreds of species.
There were so many organisms he named that he was unable to remember them all. Conrad was described by his colleagues and family as “absent-minded and careless;” he was known for his poor memory and his proclivity to rename species because he had forgotten that he named them a first time. He noted his own weaknesses when in a letter, he wrote: “I go on Monday to help H--- ferret out my skulking species of Palaeozoic shells. May the recording angel help me! God and I knew them once, and the Almighty may know still. A man’s memory is no part of his soul.”
It is no wonder that Morton remains a mystery!
Another alias of this bivalve is the duck clam, so called because of the tendency of scaup and other diving ducks to eat these little clam bites.
I couldn’t definitively determine if these sea duck snacks would also be appropriate for human consumption. A cousin of the Morton’s egg cockle is the edible cockle of Britain, but neither wild-food-eater Euel Gibbons nor any other source would say for certain that these cockles should be slated for your dinner plate.
Morton, whoever he or she was, is long forgotten. But for all of us who forget things every day — as well as prolific discoverers who can’t keep track of the names of all their discoveries — Conrad’s words, “A man’s memory is no part of his soul,” should placate any worries, and of course, warm the cockles of the hearts of the forgetful everywhere.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.