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The Lightning Whelk, A “South Paw”

Posted by Jody on November 10, 2011

The whelk family is a rather large and far-reaching family!  It includes over 1500 species, and whelks are found in all seas from the Arctic, through the tropics and to the Antarctic. That means that on any given day our family can hope to find this family at the seashore.

The lightning whelk is a relatively common seashell which is native to the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. The lightning whelk can be found in the sand from the near low tide line to water about 10 feet deep. Finding an empty lightning whelk seashell is a beachcombers delight! We’ve been lucky enough to find so many perfect uninhabited specimens of lightning whelks along the Gulf of Mexico coast from Florida to Texas. We have also left a whole passel of them behind because they had become comfy little condos for hermit crabs!

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says: “Lightning whelks reach a length of 2.5 to 16 inches (6 to 40 cm). Their distinguishing characteristics include their off-white to tan or gray shell with narrow, brown “lightning” streaks from the top of the shell to the bottom. The shell is white on the inside. The animal inside the shell is dark brown to black. Lightning whelks are unusual in that they have a counterclockwise shell spiral (lightning whelks are usually called “left handed”).”  The related Perverse Whelk is also a “south paw” but has a heavier and stouter seashell.

Lightning Whelk (©Jody Diehl)

“Like snails, the lightning whelk is in the class Gastropoda which means “stomach footed”. Gastropods are univalves (have only one shell). Hermit crabs often make homes of unoccupied lightning whelk shells. A lightning whelk leaves behind a trail when crawling. It is often easy to track them. The shell grows very quickly when the whelk is young as long as food is abundant. As it gets older, the shell grows more slowly. The color of the shell depends greatly on light, temperature and age. Older whelks have pale shells.” (TPWD)

The lightning whelk (Busycon perversum pulleyi) was named the official state seashell of Texas in 1987.  The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has a short,  interesting article on the lightning whelk which covers many details of this beautiful sea creature including its life cycle, diet, and ways this gastropod has been utilized by man through the years.

Happy beachcombing!

~~~ Revised and reposted on 5/5/2014 – with additional photos ~~~

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