The Left-Handed Seashell is the Florida Lightning Whelk

Lightning whelks and pear whelks

One pretty seashell you may find if vacationing along coast of Florida is the lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium).

It is commonly found along the southern United States beaches from the Carolinas to Texas, and is the state shell of Texas.

The Rare Sinistral Seashell

The shell is easily  recognizable by the tan or gray color with darker stripes and the fact that the opening is on the left side of the shell.  It is one of the only gastropods (shells in one piece) to have this unique, sinistral aperture feature.

The lightning whelk lives in shallow, sandy areas and prefers warm water.  This makes Florida the perfect location to call home.

It may be easier to collect an empty lightning whelk shell while visiting the gulf coast area.  This is because Sanibel Island, located on the west coast, is known as one of the best shelling places in the world.  But the lightning whelk can also be found on the East Coast.  You may have to travel away from the ocean seashore to find one.  The inner waterway / rivers are where I’ve found it.

I’ve come across lightning whelks on islands along the Intracoastal waterway.  While boating and fishing, I usually get out and explore the muddy flats when the tide is low.  This is an excellent time to find living sea life.  Usually the shells are inhabited either by the mollusk or a hermit crab.

Live Lightning Whelk Snails

Below are a couple of photos of one such shell I found while walking the flats.  This whelk had a pretty white top while the rest of the shell was more dark gray.  I would have loved to collect it, but as you can see, the little guy who created that beautiful specimen was still using it as his home.

That yellowish hard piece is the operculum, or trapdoor, which shuts the snail inside the shell.  It is made to fit perfectly within the aperture so no fleshy parts are exposed.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 4.30.02 PM
lightning whelk shell
Living Lightning Whelk

I always bring my camera because most of the shells I find offshore while boating contain living creatures.  I seldom find anything but worn, broken shells to bring home.

The Pear Whelk is a Similar Looking Shell

A similar looking shell that I also find is the pear whelk.  It has a very similar shape, but it’s opening is on the right, like most gastropod shells.  So far, every one I’ve found has been home to a hermit crab, but I always take photos.

All the shells below are not lighting whelks, but pear whelks. They do not get as large.

Although the lightning whelk can grow to be very large, there is one that is even larger.  The Florida horse conch can have the lightning whelk for dinner!

So what is the difference between a whelk and a conch?  I intend to answer that soon.

Help yourself to this free printout of a lightning whelk shell outline.

lightning whelk sea shell
Lightning whelk
Florida lightning whelk coloring page
Lightning whelk

16 thoughts on “The Left-Handed Seashell is the Florida Lightning Whelk

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  8. Jim Small

    I was on Sanibel in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes hit. I swam in her. It was like diving into wet concrete, the beach was so churned-up. The eye passed directly over us. The sun came out…the birds sang…then it all started again in the other direction!
    I brought home a lot of shells and ‘discovered’ sinistral shells on my own, as I’d never heard of them.
    Nice drawings! Drawing is how I ‘discovered’ them. I asked myself why I always drew right-hand univalves…

    1. seashellsbymillhill

      Hi Jim, that is crazy to swim during a hurricane! I was not there in ’72 for hurricane Agnes, but unfortunately I was living in central Florida and was hit hard by Charlie, and then the remnants of Frances and Jeanne in 2004. Not fun.
      Thanks for visiting!

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  12. flandrumhill

    I first read about lightning whelks and their left-handed design as a young girl and was amazed that a right-handed one, if found, could fetch a thousand dollars. Wouldn’t that be a beach treasure? It’s interesting that right-handed ones do exist even though they’re rare.

    I picked up a couple of lightning whelks years ago along the shore in Fort Myers Beach Florida many years ago. Both were left-handed but so beautiful. I kept one and gave the other to my sister who also loves shells.

    I’ve drawn many shells over the years but never a lightning whelk. You’ve done a fine job 🙂

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