Lightning Whelk (Busycon contrarium Conrad)

Lightning Whelk
Busycon contrarium Conrad, 1840

Lightning Whelk:
A “Southpaw”

By Patricia B. Mitchell.

The Lightning Whelk is a “left-handed,” or sinistral, univalve. That is to say, the spiral of this snail shell turns left rather than right. Most univalves/gastropods are right-handed, or dextral, shells. The sturdy shell may reach a height of 10 to even 15 inches. The young shell is a pretty warm-white color with vertical streaks of chestnut brown. Some folks describe the markings as having a zigzag pattern like lightning, hence the name. The aperture of the shell is reddish-brown and has paler spiral ridges which end as small points on the edge of the opening. As the snail matures, its colors fade to a grayish white. The spire of the Lightning Whelk is a bit more compressed than its cousin, the Knobbed Whelk (a right-handed shell), and it has a better figure — by that I mean a more graceful shape. The creature lives in shallow water and feeds largely on clams.

Speaking of food, from the human point of view, Julia Ellen Rogers wrote in her 1931 The Shell Book about whelks in general:

The people of Northern Europe count whelks among important sea foods — a staple, not a delicacy.

The Dublin method of cooking whelks is to boil them until they fall from the shell; then fry in butter until brown. A whelk soup which sounds “good enough to eat” is made somewhat like a clam chowder. The fried whelks are added to a vegetable soup, in which they boil an hour before being served. Boiled tender, whelks are eaten with oil and vinegar. In America they are unknown as food, though plentiful on the Atlantic coast.

The shell may be found on beaches from South Carolina to Florida. One may also find chains of its egg capsules washed ashore. Such a chain may be a foot long and is composed of many disk-like cases which feel similar to hard plastic. If you shake one of these chains, tiny little whelks will probably fall out.


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