The Left-Handed Seashell is Florida’s Lightning Whelk

lightning whelk
Florida Lightning Whelk

One pretty seashell you may find if vacationing along the Gulf coast of Florida is the lightning whelk. It’s scientific name is (Busycon contrarium) and it’s commonly found along the southern U.S. beaches from the Carolinas to Texas. In fact, it is the official state shell of Texas.

I found mine (pictured) on Sanibel Island which is on the Gulf side of Florida. There were a lot of live lightning whelks walking along the sandy bottom, so it’s obviously a good place for this mollusk to live.

This whelk can grow to be very large – over a foot in length. The one I found is only about 5 inches long. They are recognizable by the tan color and dark stripes, but if you are still not sure what you have, hold the shell upright by the end of it’s long swirl, with the opening (or living area of the mollusk) facing you.

The lightning whelk has a left-handed opening whereas most gastropods have openings on the right (as in the picture at the top of this page).

The lightning whelk lives in shallow, warmer water and searches the sandy bottom for it’s food. This is probably why they can be found in abundance on southern and gulf coast beaches in Florida. Larger whelks – such as the horse conch– will eat the lightning whelk.



12 thoughts on “The Left-Handed Seashell is Florida’s Lightning Whelk

  1. 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. 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!


  2. 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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