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.
I found the one pictured at the top of this article when I visited the Gulf Coast Sanibel Island area. Mine is only about 5 inches long, which is small compared to a full grown lightning whelk. They can grow to be nearly a foot and a half long!
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.
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.
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.
A similar looking shell that I also find is the pear whelk. It has a very similar shape, but of course 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.
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.