Everyone loves shells. Its often times a key feature of folks vacations here on the Outer Banks. Scavenging the beach for the ocean’s treasures is a great way to explore our unique world and spend a little quality time with the family. Out of all of the shells that can be found along our beaches though, it is the whelk that is the most prized, the most coveted, and the most unique.
What we call a whelk, you probably call a conch shell. You know, the shell you are supposed to be able to hold up to your ear and hear the ocean? That’s it. Conchs and whelks are pretty much the same thing. Its just that along the coast of the Outer Banks, there is not a conch to be found. Go down south to Florida and the Keys on the other hand, and conchs abound. A good rule of thumb is that conchs tend to be tropical, and whelks temperate in climate.
Both whelks and conchs are just big sea snails pretty much, and they are what biologists refer to as carnivorous gastropods. This is the point where you are probably thinking, “OK. Wait a minute here. These things are carnivorous? What in the world is a gastropod?”
The word gastropod is just a neat way of saying snails. It sounds better. Rolls off the tongue a little nicer. And when you say gastropod, people think your smart. Now a gastropod is a type of mollusc with an external shell – as opposed to slugs, also a mollusc, but with no shell – and they make up the second largest class of named species, second only to insects.
As for the notion of being a carnivorous gastropod then, well, its just like the name implies. Whelks eat other animals! When you are out on the beach looking for shells on the Outer Banks, you will probably find a tons of clam and scallop shells (think the Shell gas station symbol) that are popped wide open when they wash up. Nine times out of ten, this was done by a whelk.
Whelks will latch onto a clam shell with its foot. Then slowly but surely, the whelk will force its foot between the two shells of the clam. As the clam begins to weaken from fighting the whelk, the shell begins to slip open just enough for the whelk to insert its long probiscus and radula – which is a drill like organ to shredding up meat and shells.
Aside from popping open clams, some whelks even use this radula to drill into the shells of clams and scallops, much like our other famous little carnivorous snail called the moon snail.
Here along the Outer Banks, you are likely to find channeled, knobbed, and lighting whelks – with the lighting being the rarest. The lightning whelk and the knobbed whelk look almost identical with the primary difference being the side on which the shell opens up. This is really easy to remember as lightning whelks open on the left. All you have to do is remember lightning and left both start with an L.
All three species of whelks have historically been used for food around these parts both by Native Americans and us Bankers. The Native Americans in the region would also use the lightning whelk in a number of different ceremonies, most notably for use in drinking Asi – also what became known as black drink or Carolina Tea. Black Drink was a ceremonial drink made from the yaupon holly (pronounced y-O-pawn) that is native to this region. As yaupon holly is the only species of plant in North America to contain caffeine, the drink was prepared and consumed much like coffee is today in the mornings, as well as during purgative ceremonies. This purgative ceremonies consisted of guys drinking copious amounts of this stuff until they vomited to purge their bodies of impurities and evil. This is how the yaupon holly got its scientific name –Ilex vomitoria.
Whelks are a pretty cool species, and their story is a testament to the weird crazy world that lives along the edge of the sea. Keep your out next time you are scavenging the beach – an age old profession around these parts known as “wracking” – because you never know when you might find one of these carnivorous gastropods to take home as a souvenir.
Posted by Jared Lloyd