One of the largest groups of invertebrates in the Gulf are the Mollusk… what many call “seashells”. Shell collecting has been popular for centuries and, in times past, there were large shows where shells from around the world were traded. Almost everyone who visits the beach is attracted to, and must take home, a seashell to remind them of the peace beaches give us. Many are absolutely beautiful, and you wonder how such small simple creatures can create such beauty.
Well, first – not all mollusk are small. There are cephalopods that rival the size of some sharks and even whales.
Second, many are not that simple either. Some cephalopods are quite intelligent and have shown they can solve problems to reach their food.
But beautiful they are, and the colors and shapes are controlled by their DNA. Just amazing.
There are possibly as many as 150,000 different species of mollusks. These species are divided into 8-9 classes (depending which book you read) but for this series on Embracing the Gulf we will focus on only three. First up – the snails (Class Gastropoda).
There are an estimated 60,000 – 80,000 species of gastropods, second only to the insects. They are typically called snails and slugs and are different in that they produce a single coiled shell. The shell is made of calcium carbonate (limestone) and is excreted from tissue called the mantle. It covers their body and continues to grow as they do. The shell coils around a linear piece of shell called the columella. Most coil to the right, but some to the left – sort of like right and left-handed people. There is an opening in the shell where the snail can extend much of its body – this is called the aperture – and some species can close this off with a bony plate called an operculum when they are inside. Some snail shells have a thin extension near the head that protects the siphon – a tube that acts like a snorkel drawing water in and out of the body.
They have pretty good eyes and excellent sense of smell. They possess antenna, which can be tactile or sense chemicals in the water (smelling) to help provide information to a simple brain.
They are slow – everyone knowns this – but they really don’t care. Their thick calcium carbonate shells protect them from most predators in the sea… but not all.
Their cousins the slugs either lack the shell completely, or they have a remnant of it internally. You would think “what is the point of an internal shell?” – good question. But the slugs have another defense – they are poisonous. Venomous and poisonous are two different things. Being poisonous means you have a form of toxin within your body tissue. If a predator eats you – they will get very sick, maybe die. But you die as well, so… Not too worry, poisonous slugs are brightly colored – a universally understood signal to all predators.
There is one venomous snail – the cone snail, of which we have about five species in the Gulf. They possess a stylet at the tip of their siphon (similar to the worms we have been writing about) which they can use as a dart for prey such as fish. Many gastropods are carnivores, but some are herbivores, and some are scavengers.
Most have separate sexes and exchange gametes in a sack called a spermatophore. Fertilized eggs are often encased in structures that resemble clusters, or chains, of plastic. These are deposited on the seafloor and the young are born with their shell ready for life.
This group is not as popular as a food item as other mollusk but there are some. The Queen Conch is probably of the most famous of the edible snails, and escargot are typically land snails. I am not aware of any edible slugs… and that is good thing.
Some of the more common snails you will find along our portion of the Gulf of Mexico are:
Crown Conch Olive Murex Banded Tulip
Whelks Cowries Bonnets Cerith
Slippers Moon Oyster Drills Bubble
The most encountered slug is the sea hare.
I hope you get a chance to do some shelling – I hope you find some complete ones. It is addictive!