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What in the Whorled?

Posted on May 31, 2017

On a recent visit to coastal Florida, a personal friend encountered what she though to be a vacant seashell, but soon discovered that it was in fact occupied by a feisty resident. Knowing my profession (and my affinity for what I affectionately refer to as “goobies”; the world’s slimy, obscure, and often over-looked and under-appreciated critters), she shared the photos she had taken in hopes that I could assist in identifying her find. Somewhat serendipitously, it turned out to be the very creature that I studied intensively in grad school.

You might be inclined to postulate that this shoreline vagabond is a hermit crab, but it is not of the crustacean persuasion (although it IS bedecked with barnacles which ARE crustaceans). While hermit crabs can be found squatting in shells that look much like this one, they are not the rightful residents; those organisms that originally construct and inhabit these calcareous mobile homes.

This bizarre creature is actually a type of marine gastropod (meaning “stomach foot”) known as a Florida Fighting Conch (Strombus alatus). It is one member of the Family Strombidae – a group of marine snails which are widely distributed in warm seas. Conchs are characterized as having a retractable, asymmetrical anatomy which includes beady little eyes positioned on stalks and a hook-like operculum (this being a modified version of the structure that more familiar snails use to “close their doors”). Like oddly-shaped miniature Shop-vacs, these seafaring molluscs quietly graze on algae in the near-shore depths of an alien landscape just adjacent ours.

So the next time you venture to a Floridian or Caribbean coast, make an effort to appreciate conch in a form other than fritters (which my thesis adviser likened to “fish-flavored neoprene”). And be sure to ask me about their life cycle, behavior, and ecology sometime!

Thanks to Iris Jordan for sharing her photos and inspiring reminiscence.

Melanie Smith
Communications Coordinator