#20 - LIGHTNING WHELK (Busycon contrarium)
One of the first things Visitors to the Mound House learn is that they are standing upon millions of shells and that the Calusa ,who once inhabited this mound, used these shells not only for food ,but for tools, weapons, jewelry and ultimately, building material. So, as we tour the underground exhibit examining the layers of shells that constitute the mound ,or study the mural, or check out the artifacts on the display shelf, we will find the lightning whelk. Lightning whelks shells from the Gulf of Mexico have been discovered in archaeological sites as far away as the great mounds in Cahokia Illinois. Large lightning whelks were carved out into elaborate drinking gourds as part of ancient religious ceremonies conducted on these mounds by Native Americans .
Closer to home, we find lightning whelk shells dispersed like old cans of spam within the ancient hunting middens of the Calusa dozens of miles from the gulf, these shells were carried by hunters to serve as a quick meal when traveling or at camp.
An edible species of very large predatory sea snail, as such it has a muscular foot to crawl on ,eye stalks and a feeding tube or proboscis. The lightning whelk has a unique sinistral or “left handed” spiral that is not found on other whelks or conchs. A large specimen may be over 15 inches in length and be over 20 years old. The lightning whelk feeds primarily on clams and other bivalves, and smaller whelks can be found just below the low tide mark on our beaches and patrolling the bayside grass flats. As a protective measure, smaller whelks will dig into the mud leaving only the sharp pointed end of their shell protruding and protecting the breathing siphon. This sharp protrusion will puncture the foot of an like The largest of our lightning whelks prefer the bayside to the beach. Using its operculum or “door”, to wedge open a bivalve, such as a quahog clam or cockle ,the whelk extends its proboscis into the bivalve and devours it from the inside out.
As the water temperature dips below 78 degrees, as it does here in November, the lightning whelk will greatly reduce its activity. Likewise, they will be much harder to find on the beaches and patrolling the shallows as they spend the winter in deep water making them much harder to find this time of year.