From fighting conchs to 'sea fingernails,' mollusks aplenty dot our beaches
A fighting conch What walks on its stomach, has eyes on stalks and uses a sharp foot for defense? No, it isn't a creepy alien. It's the beautiful saltwater shell known as the Florida fighting conch (Strombus alatus).
This peaceful plant-eating animal earned its name from the way it "fights" with its pointed foot when threatened. It belongs to a group of animals called gastropods (stomach-footed) and is actually a saltwater snail.
The adult shell covering the animal can be various shades of red to orange-brown with a purple glossy flared lip. The smaller juveniles, often a lighter color, have no flare but sometimes display a natural white cross on the surface of their shell.
Florida fighting conchs live in colonies and lurch along sandy bottoms, cleaning up algae as they go. You can often see them stranded on Gulf beaches at low tide, hopping and jumping toward the water. They must quickly bury themselves or reach the water before drying out. Many do not succeed and become the next meal for hungry shorebirds.
Can you name another predator in the mollusk world that grabs prey with its foot? This one uses a toothed tongue (radula) to saw into its victims. Something out of science fiction, you say? Hardly. This scene happens daily as part of the balance of nature along the Gulf Coast. It's a lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium) simply eating a clam.
Unlike its benign cousin the fighting conch, the lightning whelk is very much a carnivore. This beautiful shell is brightly streaked with 10 or more dark stripes running its length. Its name comes from these striking markings, not its speed. Shell colors vary from white to almost black due to differences in the animal's diet and the sediment where it lives.
Like the fighting conch, the lightning whelk has only one shell; unlike most univalves, however, this shell is left-handed (if you hold it point-down, the opening is on the left).
Beachcombers are likely familiar with the egg case it lays. The spiral cream-colored case can be more than 12 inches, and each of its many compartments can hold more than two dozen tiny whelks.
Egg cases attach to the ocean bottom until the whelks mature, at which time they emerge through a small hole at the top of each compartment. More than half become food for larger animals, but some survive to add beauty to our waters and later decorate our beaches.
The zebra ark (Arca zebra) is a hinged bi-valve that's also known as a turkey wing. It grows to be 1-3 inches long and has a feather-like zigzag pattern of white and brown stripes.
Collectors and crafters often use the jingle shell (Anomia simplex) to make wind chimes. Live jingles attach to hard objects, and sometimes to other shells, using threads released from their lower valve. The object holding them also shapes them because jingle shells are both soft and thin (with a texture and translucence resembling fingernails). Children delight in collecting hard, dried jingle shells and often call them "sea fingernails." Most jingle shells are a pale yellowy color; less common jingles are orange or black.
Perhaps the most appropriate shell at Lee County's Lovers Key State Park is the 9-inch bivalve that when opened forms a perfect heart. The inside shines with a pearly pink and deep lavender iridescence. The fragile stiff pen (Atrina rigida) resembles an old-fashioned writing quill.
Along the miles and miles of Gulf beaches, these and dozens more varieties of shells just wait for you to enjoy. Just remember: It is against the law to collect live shells, including sand dollars, in Collier and Lee counties. We all want our shells to be here for years to come.
Lee Belanger is a seasonal volunteer
trail and canoe guide at Collier-Seminole
State Park. To contact her, e-mail
Take a hike or grab a paddle (and bring bug spray)
Although guided canoe tours and hikes have ended for the summer, there's much to discover on your own at Collier-Seminole State Park:
>>Rent a canoe - Paddle down the Blackwater River through a mangrove forest toward the Gulf of Mexico. Enjoy birding, fishing (salt water license required) or just a relaxing paddle in this outdoor wonderland. Rentals available from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
>>Hike 11 miles of trails - Experience pine flatwoods, cypress areas and rare royal palm hammocks. One of three trails is interpretative, another allows for off-road biking, and a third has a remote campsite. Be sure to stop to register at the ranger station for the two longer trails and call ahead to reserve the campsite. Trails are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The park also offers picnicking, birding, fishing, camping, a boat ramp and a chance to see the historic "walking dredge" that was used to build the Tamiami Trail.
The entrance to Collier-Seminole State Park is at 20200 U.S. 41 East, eight miles east of Highway 951. Park entrance fee is $4 for up to eight people in a car; there is an additional fee for camping.
Call 392-3397 for more information.