There is no need for speed if you are a snail. Life in the fast lane is not a high priority for the whelk, a common marine snail found in the ocean.
Whelks are a wonder. Sometimes you find a live one, but more often it is just the large spiral shell that is left behind to discover on the beach. If you are lucky, you can also find an operculum, the trap door that allows the snail to close its shell for protection. These are brown hard oval discs that are occasionally found along the shore.
More commonly seen are the egg cases of the whelks, called mermaid’s necklaces, which adorn the beach. These strands of disc-like cases hold around two dozen miniature whelks in each compartment, and rattle when you shake them. Sometimes the young don’t survive and you can open one of the discs and examine the shells inside.
There are two varieties of giant whelks (Busycon species) that reside in our waters, the knobbed and channeled whelk. These large mollusks are often called conchs, but you can impress your friends with your sea life knowledge by pointing out that this is a common misnomer: the shells found here are not true conchs scientifically. True conchs are a southern vegetarian species, while the whelk that we encounter on Martha’s Vineyard is a northern carnivore.
The knobbed whelk is the larger of the two, and can reach up to one foot in length. The two local species have very logical names: the knobbed whelk has spines on the shoulder of its spiral shell (“horns whelked and waved like the enridged sea,” as Shakespeare said), while the smaller channeled whelk has canals that follow its spirals.
The shells of both species coil clockwise, or dextrally, and most of them are right-handed, meaning that the opening of the shell is on the right side. While it is possible to find a left-handed channeled or knobbed whelk, it is pretty uncommon. More likely, a left-handed whelk shell will belong to a lightning whelk, a southern species not found on the Island.
The egg cases of each species are also different. The knobbed whelk egg case has pointed edges, while the channeled whelk’s egg case edge is flat.
A snail’s pace is just right for the knobbed whelk, as its main prey are clams.
Channeled whelks channel their energies into pursuing a more diverse menu, dining on crabs, lobsters and barnacles in addition to clams. They capture their prey by grabbing and opening it with their large foot, then using their radula, or rasping tongue, to obtain and eat the softer flesh within.
In the wild kingdom, the law is eat or be eaten. The whelk’s predators include birds, crabs, and even humans. Capt. John Smith wrote about an early whelk aficionado during the famine of 1614-1615, “One amongst the rest hid himself in the woods, and lived only on Wilkes and Land Crabs, fat and lusty, many months.” Italians call them scungilli and dine on them with olive oil and lemon (at least we did in my family). And of course Euell Gibbons, eater of all wild things, offers recipes for pickled whelks, whelk patties (to make meatballs or whelk burgers), devilled whelks and whelk steaks. Since these slowpokes are not hard to catch, they are the very embodiment of slow food.
These snails were obviously not born to run, but they could be joining you as you take a whelk on the wild side. To miss them would simply be un-conch-onable.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.