David Reese, inset Tom McHugh, National Audubon Society Collection

Shells of murex brandaris snails. Scientists from Haifa University’s Center for Maritime Studies excavated this accumulation of delicate looking but very sturdy ancient shells at Tel Mor, on the Mediterranean Sea near Ashdod in Israel. The animals inside—like the one in the inset photo— were a source of purple dye and had been removed in antiquity by boiling. In many other cases, the shells were punctured or, more commonly, crushed in order to expose the animals’ hypobranchial glands and then to extract the precious purple dye.

The snail seen here, whose broad white foot grips the side of an aquarium, is called Purpura haemastoma or, in English, “red mouthed purple” because this species, like the murex brandaris, was a source of purple dye. These snails were harvested by the millions from the Mediterranean Sea near Crete, Greece, Lebanon and Israel.