No. 08–When is a Conch not a Conch?

A real good indicator as to is it or isn’t it a conch has to do with where the animal or its shell are found. If it’s on the South Carolina coast, it’s not a conch. Species of conch are found in southern Florida and throughout the Caribbean. Conch are herbivorous feeding on sea grasses. Our waters are devoid of sea grass which precludes the presence of conch.

The large snails and their shells found in local waters that many mistakenly call conch are actually whelks. Whelks are found on both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. It’s only an educated surmise on my part but I think the reason so many locals mislabel whelks as conchs may well have to do with African-American history.

It is known that conch had become an integral element in the Caribbean slave diet prior to the introduction of plantation slavery to the U.S. mainland. Early on, Caribbean slaves made up a disproportionately large portion of those brought in to meet the demands of the growing mainland plantation economy. It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to see how the name used for large snails of the Caribbean could be transferred and established in the vernacular of a newly arrived population catching, cooking and eating the different looking but same tasting large snails found in their new home waters.

Four species of whelk inhabit local waters. They are the knobbed, lightning, channeled and pear whelk. The smallest, the pear whelk, is strictly a near shore-offshore creature not to be found in the estuary. Their shells, however, may be found in the estuary inhabited by striped hermit crabs which is a fact that had perplexed me for years. I had long thought, incorrectly, that the striped hermit was strictly an estuarine species because I had never found one on the beach. A visit to the State Aquarium in Charleston disabused me of that notion and solved the riddle when I observed an ocean reef tank crawling with striped hermits. That’s a long haul back and forth and I have no idea as to the reason for it.

The other three species are the knobbed and lightning whelks inhabit both estuarine and near shore waters while the channeled whelk is pretty much a salt marsh homebody.

The largest gastropod (snail) found here is the Florida horse conch which is neither a conch nor a whelk. A lucky few of this species live long enough to produce spectacular shells of up to two feet in length.

More on whelks in next month’s issue.