Oyster facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Crassostrea gigas p1040848
Crassostrea gigas from the Marennes-Oléron basin in France
Oyster reef Hunting Island SC
Oyster reef at about mid-tide off fishing pier at Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Oysters served on ice, with lemon and parsley
Oysters served on ice and with a piece of lemon on the side
Chargrilled oysters
Chargrilled oysters

Oysters are a family of bivalves with rough, thick shells, the Ostreidae, plus some other types which are called 'oyster'. Many species are edible, and are usually served raw. They are also good when cooked. In history, they were an important food source, especially in France and Britain. They used to grow in huge oyster beds, but were "overfished" in the 19th century. Nowadays they are more expensive, so eaten less often.

Some of the unrelated 'oysters' are the pearl oyster, Pinctada, which is a clam, and a few mussels which look a bit like oysters when they are taken out of their shells.

Types

True oysters

True oysters are members of the family Ostreidae. This family includes the edible oysters, which mainly belong to the genera Ostrea, Crassostrea, Ostreola, Magallana, and Saccostrea. Examples include the Belon oyster, eastern oyster, Olympia oyster, Pacific oyster, and the Sydney rock oyster.

Pearl oysters

Pearl Oysters
Removing a pearl from a pearl oyster

Almost all shell-bearing mollusks can secrete pearls, yet most are not very valuable. Pearls can form in both saltwater and freshwater environments.

Pearl oysters are not closely related to true oysters, being members of a distinct family, the feathered oysters (Pteriidae). Both cultured pearls and natural pearls can be extracted from pearl oysters, though other molluscs, such as the freshwater mussels, also yield pearls of commercial value.

The largest pearl-bearing oyster is the marine Pinctada maxima, which is roughly the size of a dinner plate. Not all individual oysters produce pearls naturally. In fact, in a harvest of two and a half tons of oysters, only three to four oysters produce what commercial buyers consider to be absolute perfect pearls.

In nature, pearl oysters produce pearls by covering a minute invasive object with nacre. Over the years, the irritating object is covered with enough layers of nacre to become a pearl. The many different types, colours and shapes of pearls depend on the natural pigment of the nacre, and the shape of the original irritant.

Pearl farmers can culture a pearl by placing a nucleus, usually a piece of polished mussel shell, inside the oyster. In three to seven years, the oyster can produce a perfect pearl. These pearls are not as valuable as natural pearls, but look exactly the same. In fact, since the beginning of the 20th century, when several researchers discovered how to produce artificial pearls, the cultured pearl market has far outgrown the natural pearl market.

Other types of oysters

A number of bivalve molluscs (other than true oysters and pearl oysters) also have common names that include the word "oyster", usually because they either taste like or look somewhat like true oysters, or because they yield noticeable pearls. Examples include:

  • Thorny oysters in the genus Spondylus
  • Pilgrim oyster, another term for a scallop, in reference to the scallop shell of St. James
  • Saddle oysters, members of the Anomiidae family also known as jingle shells
  • Dimydarian oysters, members of the family Dimyidae
  • Windowpane oysters

In the Philippines, a local thorny oyster species known as Tikod amo is a favorite seafood source in the southern part of the country. Because of its good flavor, it commands high prices.

Anatomy

Oysters are filter feeders, drawing water in over their gills through the beating of cilia. Suspended plankton and particles are trapped in the mucus of a gill, and from there are transported to the mouth, where they are eaten, digested, and expelled as feces or pseudofeces. Oysters feed most actively at temperatures above 10 °C (50 °F). An oyster can filter up to 5 L (1.3 US gal) of water per hour. Chesapeake Bay's once-flourishing oyster population historically filtered excess nutrients from the estuary's entire water volume every three to four days. Today, it would take nearly a year. Excess sediment, nutrients, and algae can result in the eutrophication of a body of water. Oyster filtration can mitigate these pollutants.

In addition to their gills, oysters can also exchange gases across their mantles, which are lined with many small, thin-walled blood vessels. A small, three-chambered heart, lying under the adductor muscle, pumps colorless blood to all parts of the body. At the same time, two kidneys, located on the underside of the muscle, remove waste products from the blood. Their nervous system includes two pairs of nerve cords and three pairs of ganglia.

While some oysters have two sexes (European oyster and Olympia oyster), their reproductive organs contain both eggs and sperm. Because of this, it is technically possible for an oyster to fertilize its own eggs. The gonads surround the digestive organs, and are made up of sex cells, branching tubules, and connective tissue.

Once the female is fertilized, she discharges millions of eggs into the water. The larvae develop in about six hours and exist suspended in the water column as veliger larvae for two to three weeks before settling on a bed and maturing to sexual adulthood within a year.

Habitat and behaviour

Oyster reef Hunting Island SC
Oyster reef at about mid-tide off fishing pier at Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

A group of oysters is commonly called a bed or oyster reef.

Oyster Dalian
Rocks in intertidal zone covered by oysters, at Bangchuidao Scenic Area, Dalian, Liaoning Province, China

As a keystone species, oysters provide habitat for many marine species. Crassostrea and Saccostrea live mainly in the intertidal zone, while Ostrea is subtidal. The hard surfaces of oyster shells and the nooks between the shells provide places where a host of small animals can live. Hundreds of animals, such as sea anemones, barnacles, and hooked mussels, inhabit oyster reefs. Many of these animals are prey to larger animals, including fish, such as striped bass, black drum and croakers.

An oyster reef can increase the surface area of a flat bottom 50-fold. An oyster's mature shape often depends on the type of bottom to which it is originally attached, but it always orients itself with its outer, flared shell tilted upward. One valve is cupped and the other is flat.

Oysters usually reach maturity in one year. They are protandric; during their first year, they spawn as males by releasing sperm into the water. As they grow over the next two or three years and develop greater energy reserves, they spawn as females by releasing eggs. Bay oysters usually spawn from the end of June until mid-August. An increase in water temperature prompts a few oysters to spawn. This triggers spawning in the rest, clouding the water with millions of eggs and sperm. A single female oyster can produce up to 100 million eggs annually. The eggs become fertilized in the water and develop into larvae, which eventually find suitable sites, such as another oyster's shell, on which to settle. Attached oyster larvae are called spat. Spat are oysters less than 25 mm (1 in) long. Many species of bivalves, oysters included, seem to be stimulated to settle near adult conspecifics.

Electric oyster MolluSCAN eye project
Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas equipped with activity electrodes to follow their daily behaviour

Oysters are considered to filter large amounts of water to feed and breathe (exchange O2 and CO2 with water) but they are not permanently open. They regularly shut their valves to enter a resting state, even when they are permanently submersed. In fact their behaviour follows very strict circatidal and circadian rhythms according to the relative moon and sun positions. During neap tides, they exhibit much longer closing periods than during the spring tide.

Some tropical oysters, such as the mangrove oyster in the family Ostreidae, grow best on mangrove roots. Low tide can expose them, making them easy to collect. In Trinidad in the West Indies, tourists are often astounded when they are told, in the Caribbean, "oysters grow on the trees here".

The largest oyster-producing body of water in the United States is Chesapeake Bay, although these beds have decreased in number due to overfishing and pollution. Willapa Bay in Washington produces more oysters than any other estuary in the US. Other large oyster farming areas in the US include the bays and estuaries along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Apalachicola, Florida in the east to Galveston, Texas in the west. Large beds of edible oysters are also found in Japan and Australia. In 2005, China accounted for 80% of the global oyster harvest. Within Europe, France remained the industry leader.

Common oyster predators include crabs, seabirds, starfish, and humans. Some oysters contain crabs, known as oyster crabs.

Nutrient cycling

Bivalves, including oysters, are effective filter feeders and can have large effects on the water columns in which they occur. As filter feeders, oysters remove plankton and organic particles from the water column.

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Oyster Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.