The other day I took a walk with my housemates and our dog Odin along the Cape May Canal. Nothing too miraculous happened, but since I can’t walk along the shore without my eyes glued to the sand, I noticed the rounded tip of a big shell poking out of the ground. When I pulled it out, I discovered this:
It’s called a Channeled Whelk, so named for the spiral gully that runs along the top of the shell, I’d guess. The fact that I found a Channel Whelk in a canal gets me jazzed in a nerdy linguistic way I have to mention, if only in this sentence. It turns out the New Jersey state shell is actually the Knobbed Whelk, which is a bit more spastic looking. I’d been calling these animals ‘conchs’ all my life. In fact, conchs live in mostly tropical water and feed on vegetation. Whelks are carnivorous, cold-weather mollusks.
There it is in all its slimy glory. The calcified, mussel-shaped thing over the snail is called the operculum, or, more colorfully, the sailor’s toenail. When whelks lay eggs, they come in long strings called mermaid’s necklaces. No one’s going to mistake this for a land animal.
Due to overfishing of conch in the Caribbean, several restaurants in Cape May have switched over to using whelk, which has a similar – though slightly tougher – consistency. Italians, which call the snails scungili, have been eating them forever in salads and pastas. While not as glamorous as calamari or eel, scungili used to be one of the go-to dishes during the Christmastime Feast of the Seven Fish.
Here’s one in action, courtesy of Trinixia.