7 swinging sand dollar facts

Sand dollar

The sand dollar or Dendraster excentricus is one animal that continues to surprise me every time I see it. Long before I started learning about the ocean and marine life, I remember seeing faded-white sand dollar shells (former sand dollar endoskeletons) and not thinking much of them. Now I find sand dollars fascinating because they are just so strange. Drum roll please…here are seven swinging sand dollar facts:

1. Sand dollars live in…you guessed it! The sand. Typically, the species Dendraster excentricus is found close to shore in the low intertidal zone to as deep as 30 feet from Alaska to Baja California. (The low intertidal zone is the area close to shore that is usually covered with water except at very low tides.)

2. For sand dollars, living right  next to each other in very large groups or beds is the way to go. Sometimes there are neighborhoods of sand dollars that are several square feet (suburban dwelling) and others stretch for miles across the sandy ocean floor (urban dwelling). (Here’s a good photo of sand dollars hanging out together.)

3.There are many species of sand dollars living around the world with a variety of common names including sea cookie and sand cake. Sand dollars also come in a variety of colors such as green, blue or black; the local California species, Dendraster excentricus, is purple.

4. Sand dollars are members of the phylum Echinodermata, which means they are echinoderms and closely related to sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

5. It’s hard to believe, but this flat and round-shaped creature is designed for burrowing in the sand. Their bodies are covered with tiny spines (similar to a sea urchin’s spines but super small) that they use to dig. Once they’ve burrowed into a good position (see above photo) sand dollars keep their butt end above the sand’s surface to capture food.

6. The feeding strategy of sand dollars is fascinating. Their bodies are covered with tiny appendages to capture food particles small and large. Tiny cilia (extra small hairs) on the sand dollar’s spines sweep up small bits of food and tiny tube feet adeptly collect larger food pieces. Once food is caught the tiny appendages on the sand dollar work together to sweep food towards the mouth, which is located at the center of the five-petal flower pattern on bottom. The mouth has a five-toothed set-up called Aristotle’s lantern for chomping food. (Five pattern symmetry is a characteristic of echinoderms, sea stars have five arms, etc.)

7. Sand dollars reproduce by spawning; male sand dollars release sperm and female sand dollars release eggs into the water during spring. Reproduction is assisted by sand dollars living so close together. In fact, this post is very timely since it’s May 1st, coinciding with the beginning of sand dollar spawning season that continues through July. Sand dollars begin their lives as larvae and go through several larval stages before developing skeletons and settling on the ocean floor as the first step to adulthood. An adult sand dollar is about three inches in diameter and lives approximately eight years.

(Note: The above sand dollar facts are for the species Dendraster excentricus, other sand dollar species may have slightly different adaptations depending on where they live in the world.)


  1. JNapoli says

    These sand dollars are indeed swinging! I love how they live in gated communities, and any day with a reference to cilia is a good day! Thanks, OWT.

  2. RMillan says

    I stay in a small village on the west coast of Scotland and spend many days with my daughter at the beach looking for marine life in small rock pools but most of the beach is sand and a few weeks ago i found one of these sand dollars which was shaped as round and it was floating in shallow water at the edge. im pretty sure it was a sand dollar but when ive googled it all it says is that they are from Calirfonia. Do you get these creatures in the sea’s of Scotland, UK and why was it floating?

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Hello RMillan,
      There are many different species of sand dollars found throughout the world and I’m guessing you found a species local to Scotland’s coast. There may be more information available on the California species because it has been studied more, but it’s definitely not the only species out there. I recommend contacting the National Aquarium in Devon and ask them what species of sand dollars live along the UK coast.

      A floating sand dollar usually means a sand dollar close to the end of its life cycle. It’s possible that a strong wave or predator knocked the sand dollar loose and it floated off or it died and was washed ashore, most likely it was the later scenario. I hope this answer helps!

  3. Maureen Baker says

    My family visited Pacific Beach, Wa. recently. We have often found sand dollars on our Pacific Coast. This trip we saw what appeared to be the impression of the underside of the Sand dollar on the surface of the sand. Can you tell us what this is??????Thanks

  4. Elizabeth says

    My ever curious nephew got a couple of sand dollars from the Easter Bunny & asked me if it was a shell or what. So thank you for these facts so I can sound smart!!

  5. Steve says

    I’ve never found a reference to what I’m about to tell you, but I saw it with my own eyes so I know it’s true.

    I was scuba diving alone at the south end of La Jolla Shores trying out a new wet suit (No lectures, please.). It was December 26, 1990, according to my log book. Not sure of the exact spot, but it was somewhere in front of the country club. The water was extremely calm. Almost no swells, and the “waves” amounted to nothing more than a single four inch pipe breaking onto the sand. I was a hundred yards or so from the shore and depth was maybe 10-15 feet. I didn’t have a camera, unfortunately. What I saw was sand dollars, probably a couple hundred of them, all up on edge with grooves in the sand behind each one. It appeared as if they were all rolling toward the shore. They were not moving fast enough for me to remain interested in timing them, but the evidence seemed pretty clear that they had made the grooves themselves. There was no one else out there with me and, being early in the morning, there were few people on shore, so I have no witnesses.

    I’d be curious to know if anyone else has seen something like this. So far I’m the only one.

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      What a great sighting Steve! I’m sure you’re right, it only makes sense that sand dollars would leave grooves in the sand as they move along. I’ll ask around to see if other scuba divers have seen this. In the meantime, if there are any scuba divers who have seen something similar please weigh in!

  6. Helen says

    We live near the Gulf Coast in Alabama and have seen and collected various sand dollars. My granddaughter was visiting and came home with two that were black. We had never seem any black ones in the gulf before. Are they native to this area too or is this rare?

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Hi Helen, Yes, the sand dollar is common to Gulf Coast area. Based on the research I did, it looks like it’s commonly referred to as the keyhole sand dollar and its scientific name is Mellita tenuis. I hope that helps!

  7. Patty says

    We just came back from the Destin area of Florida. While there, we watched a man and his son “hunting” sand dollars. They had a large bag of them. Maybe a hundred or so. Are there that many sand dollars that “hunting” them is okay?

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Hi Patty, I’m not familiar with what the conservation status of sand dollars is in Florida, but do you know if they were live sand dollars or just shells? Either way, I will do more research and try to find more information on the Florida Fish and Wildlife
      Conservation Commission website. Thanks!

  8. Patsy Glaser Gibson says

    March 18,2015 I walked my beach locate east side Harstine island, southern Puget Sound on Case Inlet, Washington state. I was searching for the white dead sand dollars which I never have problems finding.Except this time I only found 8. Normally I can bring home buckets. Is there a time of year more prevalent for the white ones. Lots of live black purple ones out about a two foot above tide.I haven’t searched for them this early in the year, mainly summer months. Reading your information, I wonder if the hotter summer months make a big difference for the white dead ones, but if the case why only 8 on my entire beach?

  9. Melissa says

    I think it is extremely ignorant of people to “hunt “or collect sand dollars or any other living creature they find @ the beach, NO MATTER WHAT THE STATUS! They have a right to live. LEAVE ONLY FOOTPRINTS, TAKE ONLY PICTURES!

      • Carolyn Kraft says

        Hi Lisa, It’s tricky with sand dollars, the sand dollar and its shell are one. Live sand dollars are usually a color, here in California they’re purple. A white sand dollar shell usually indicates a dead animal, but in general it’s still better to leave ocean areas as you find them, unless you are picking up trash – then that’s always a good thing.

  10. says

    What a fascinating post. Just home from a walk to Sand Dollar Beach here in Nova Scotia. Cold Spring day. We saw some white Sand Dollar shells (do I call them “shells” ?) but what was fascinating was we spotted several of them along the shore. Live ones ! It was low tide. They were brown with feathery edges, lying flat on the wet sand. They seemed to be pushing themselves along flat on the sand.

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Hi Sybil, Yes, you can call them white sand dollar shells. That’s awesome you were able to see live sand dollars as well, they sound beautiful! Ocean animals are amazing.

  11. Jessi says

    Hi just got back from our favorite sand dollar cove…in the beautiful northwest puget sound area…it used to be that we would go betting who would find the largest sand dollar now we go betting on who will find the smallest…well today we found sand dollars 1/2 of a millimeter maybe even smaller…it was amazing…
    Funny I went my whole life never having found a single sand dollar and now that I found this cove your completely surrounded by them to the point where every step you take is planned as to not step on them..
    For as far as the eye can see..what a magical place ,,,,, and it’s minutes away from where I live…


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