On a visit to Martha’s Vineyard, Cinderella would do well to leave her glass slippers at home.
There is absolutely no need for that type of fancy footwear here — very few balls or parties swanky enough to warrant their wear. We tend to be a little more laid-back on-Island. Likely these delicate slippers would get ruined if she brought them here, with our limited number of sidewalks and many dirt trails.
The types of slippers that Cinderella shouldn’t miss out on are the slipper shells. These are not for the feet, but may be ideal for a feast.
Slipper shells are snails; gastropods for the gastronome. Locally known as sweet meats, the snail flesh contained within can be consumed. Raw is fine, but a garlic sauté never ruined any dish! If your intent is to eat these small snails, be sure that you find them submerged (not dried up onshore) in open, clean water.
Though found along shorelines and intertidal zones in many places on the Island, slipper snails are especially abundant at State Beach. Look for these pink, purple and white shells with a white deck or shelf on the underside. Because of these characteristics, they are also called boat shells or quarterdecks.
Less famous as food, they are more well-known for their stacking state: Slipper snails create the ultimate daisy chain. Cinderella might have found her one and only love, but slipper snails prefer to have many suitors. Their stacks can have up to a dozen slipper snails holding on, waiting their turn with the belle of the ball.
On the bottom of the pile, find the largest snail, the female. On top of her, in missionary style, are a stack of males. Perhaps this is why they were given the scientific name Crepidula fornicata.
Unlike many marine animals, slipper snails don’t broadcast reproductive cells. Instead the male reaches down and fertilizes the eggs of the female, which are held under her body. If you pull the bottom one off of its holdfast, you can sometimes see her orange eggs.
Slipper snails are sequential hermaphrodites, meaning that they start life as one gender (male) and as they age, become another (female). Once they have changed, though, there is no going back. If the bottom female dies or falls away from the group, the male above her will become a female to take her place.
These animals are unique among their snail kin. Unlike most snails, they are not spiral-shaped. Instead, their cuplike bodies adapt to whatever they attach themselves to. Flat, curved or irregular — the substrate determines the shape of the bottom of this snail’s shell. This adaptation is important, as slipper snails like a tight seal (fitting as snug as, well, Cinderella’s slipper). The seal creates a bond that keeps them attached, keeps out predators and keeps the snails from dehydrating when they invariably wash up on the shore.
Beyond shape, another unsnail-like trait is their mode of transport, or actually lack of transport. Most snails are mobile, while the slipper snail is content in its sessile state.
Though sessile on our shores, slipper snails become a menace across the sea, where they are considered invasive. In Europe, they attach themselves to oyster beds and outcompete the oysters for food, as both species are filter feeders.
In Europe, then, they may be like a fish out of water, but here slipper snails have found a very comfortable existence with few limitations. They will never have a curfew and won’t find their shell turning into a pumpkin after the clock strikes midnight. Best of all, after a long night on the town, these snails don’t have to return to a household of menacing relatives and domestic drudgery: they can simply slip into something more comfortable — the ocean.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.