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Whelks

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Common whelk (Buccinidae), a marine snail
Frank Greenaway/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Whelks are snails that beautiful shells. If you see something on the beach that looks like a "sea shell," it's probably the shell of a whelk.

There are over 50 species of whelks. Here you can learn about characteristics common to these species.

What Does a Whelk Look Like?:

Whelks have a spiraled shell which varies in size and shape. These animals can vary in size from under an inch in length (shell length) to more than 2 feet. The largest whelk is the trumpet whelk, which grows to over 2 feet (Source). Whelk shells vary in color.

Whelks have a muscular foot that they use to move and hold prey. They also have a hard operculum that closes the shell's opening and is used for protection. To breathe, whelks have a siphon, a long tube-like organ which is used to bring in oxygenated water. This siphon allows the whelk to burrow in the sand while still getting oxygen.

Whelks feed using an organ called the proboscis. The proboscis is made up of the radula, esophagus and mouth.

Classification:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Mollusca
  • Class: Gastropoda
  • Order: Neogastropoda
  • Superfamily: Buccinodea
  • Family: Buccinidae (true whelks)

There are additional species of animals that are called "whelks" but are in other families.

Feeding:

Whelks are carnivores, and eat crustaceans, mollusks and worms - they will even eat other whelks. They can drill a hole into the shell of their prey with their radula, or may wrap their foot around the hinged shells of their prey and use their own shell as a wedge to force the shells open, then insert their proboscis inside the shell and consume the animal inside.

Reproduction:

Whelks reproduce by sexual reproduction with internal fertilization. Some, like the channeled and knobbed whelk, produce a string of egg capsules that may be 2-3 feet long, and each capsule has 20-100 eggs inside which hatch into miniature whelks.You can see some great images here of egg capsules and the baby whelks that lie within. Waved whelks produce a mass of egg capsules which look like a pile of egg cases.

The egg capsule allows the young whelk embryos to develop and provides protection. Once they have developed, the eggs hatch inside the capsule, and the juvenile whelks leave via an opening.

Habitat and Distribution:

The question of where to find a whelk depends upon what species you're looking for. In general, whelks may be found in many parts of the world, and are usually found on sandy or muddy bottoms, from shallow tide pools out to waters several hundred feet deep.

Human Uses:

Whelks are a popular food (people eat the mollusks' muscular foot - the Italian dish scungili is made from a whelk's foot), and are collected for sea shell trade. They may be caught as bycatch (e.g., in lobster traps), and they may be used as bait to catch other marine life, such as cod. Whelk egg cases may be used as a "fishermen's soap."

The veined rapa whelk is a non-indigenous species that has been introduced into the U.S. The native habitat of these whelks includes waters in the western Pacific Ocean including the Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and the Bohai Sea. These whelks were introduced into the Chesapeake Bay and may cause damage to native species. More information on this species is available from the USGS here.

References and Further Information:

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Marine Life
  4. Invertebrates
  5. Mollusks - Phylum Mollusca
  6. Whelk Profile

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