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It's not always easy walking on a beach during the winter in New York or New Jersey. Freezing temperatures, bitter winds, very strong storms offshore, and did I mention it's really cold outside. A winter beach is nothing like what you find in the summer. Windier, wilder, and wholly more rugged than the summer.
Yet, for those hardy and well-layered enough to venture out, one of the big benefits of the beach in the winter is finding beautiful looking shells. Winter is prime time for stumbling upon natural treasures along the shore, frequently found washed up along a tide line or tangled among the seaweed and other bits of flotsam.
Whenever I get the opportunity, you can frequently find me on a beach in the winter. I usually find something interesting to take home: a shell, a sea urchin skeleton, a piece of driftwood or a strange looking stone. Anything that catches my eye.
The other day was one of those days when a true treasure was discovered. I found the state shell of New Jersey.
The Knobbed Whelk is a fun find! It has a lovely pear-shaped shell with the outer edge being whorled with rows of small knobs. It can be found in a verity of colors from white to black when an adult, to an ashen hue with streaks when young.
Let's get one thing straight here. A whelk is not a conch. Conchs and whelks are often confused. Yes, they are both large, predatory aquatic snails with one shell. The muscle of each snail is the part that is eaten, sometimes in salads, stews, or in a delicious dish called scungelli, and Italian word for whelk. This is where the similarities end though.
The big difference between whelks and conchs is that whelks are found in cooler temperate waters and conchs are found in more warmer tropical waters. Whelks are also carnivores, whereas conchs are herbivores. Moreover, conchs tend to have a more ornate and heavy shell since it can stay active year-round to feed and grow. The shell of a whelk is generally smaller as whelks are inclined to lie mostly dormant during the winter.
In New Jersey, people are so enamored with the Knobbed Whelk that it was made the state shell. Governor Christine Todd Whitman made it official on April 13, 1995. The empty shell can be found on all beaches and bays of New Jersey, from Raritan Bay down to Delaware Bay. It can also be found along coastal waters from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Knobbed Whelks not only look strange, but they have an out of the ordinary way to feed as well. A whelk will use its razor-sharp shell tip to chip and pry open the shell of their prey, mostly clams. Once there is sufficient room, a Knobbed Whelk will insert its proboscis, a long tube-like appendage from the head used for feeding, and begin to suck the juices and soft meat from the clam to feed. Amazing, but kind of gross.
These sea snails begin life as a small crawling snail that emerges from an egg capsule, which an adult female deposits in the water during the preceding spring. Each fertilized egg capsule is regularly strung together in a long spiral sting with many other capsules, sometimes a foot or more in length and containing over 150 capsules. This spiral string of capsules is called an egg case. The egg capsules of the Knobbed Whelk are coin-shaped.
Each tiny snail that emerges from an egg capsule is born with a shell and is either male or female. It will take 3 to 5 years before they reach maturity. Females are usually larger than males, since they have to carry the egg cases.
About once a year, adult whelks will gather in estuarine waters to mate. After mating the female will remain in brackish waters to lay an egg case. After reproduction, Knobbed Whelks will often migrate offshore into deeper waters to overwinter.
In addition to the Knobbed Whelk, there are other snails that call our local waters home. There is the Channeled Whelk. Instead of the shell being knobbed, the Channeled Whelk has a broad whorled body with smooth conical curves. It is generally smaller in length that the Knobbed Whelk
There are also Moon Snails. These shells are distinctive, as they are circular, almost dome-shaped, with slightly convex whorls that encompass the entire body of the shell. Moon Snails feed on clams and other bivalves that it finds in the sand, boring small, perfectly round holes in their shell to suck the meat out. Sometimes live Moon Snails can be seen along the beach, in a section of the intertidal zone with gentle waves.
No matter what kind of snail shell you find this winter, they are all definitely keepers. Beautiful wild shells that are worthy of any coffee table, bookcase, or office desk.
Don't be a hoarder though. Always leave some whelks and other shells on the beach for other people and animals to find. Recent scientific studies show that excessive shell removal from a beach could cause significant damage to natural ecosystems and organisms that rely on shells, such as algae, sea grass, and sponges. Hermit crabs also use shells as a protective covering while some fish use shells to hide from predators. In addition, shells are mostly made of calcium carbonate and in many coastal habitats they dissolve slowly and recycle back into the ocean. Don't take too many treasures home, just what you need.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com