Florida is home to a variety of marine gastropods, or sea snails. These snails play numerous roles in their ecosystems. Snails are food for a number of animals (fish, crabs, other snails, birds, humans) and herbaceous (plant-eating) snail species can help remove algae and reduce plant detritus (dead matter). Their discarded shells provide protection and habitat for other animals and are prized by shell collectors worldwide. Sea snails support commercial and recreational fisheries in Florida and are harvested for meat, shells and use in the aquarium industry.
The horse conch (Triplofusus giganteus) is the largest univalve (single shell) snail found in U.S. waters and is the state shell of Florida. The horse conch can grow to a length of 24 inches (600 millimeters) and is easily identifiable by the bright orange flesh inside the shell. The shells of juvenile horse conchs are also bright orange, but they fade to dark brown over time. These snails are carnivorous (meat-eaters) and eat mostly bivalves (two shells) and other snails, including other horse conchs. They can be found throughout Florida marine waters, foraging in seagrass beds or buried in sandy sediments.
The lightning whelk (Busycon sinistrum) is one of the larger univalve snails found in Florida waters. It can grow to a length of 16 inches (400 millimeters) and is easily identifiable by the left-handed opening of the shell – meaning when you look at the shell, the opening is on the left. Lightning whelk shells are usually creamy with dark brown streaks. These snails are carnivorous and eat mostly bivalves; they are often found consuming hard clams that were buried in the sediment. Lightning whelks are most commonly found on mud and sand flats but are occasionally observed in seagrass beds.
The true tulip (Fasciolaria tulipa) is smaller than the horse conch and lightning whelk but is observed more frequently in Florida marine waters. The shell of a true tulip is smooth and spindle-shaped with several whorls, or spirals, in the shell. Shells can reach a length of 8 inches (200 millimeters), and the color ranges from light cream to dark brown with dark brown blotches and black spiral lines. The true tulip is a voracious predator and will eat bivalves, snails and even decaying animals. When threatened, tulip snails have an escape maneuver they can use when retreating into their shell is not enough. When grasped by a predator, they extend their body out of their shell and violently thrash their foot to startle the predator before making a hasty retreat.
The banded tulip (Fasciolaria lilium) is a close relative of the true tulip and is found in the same habitats in Florida. Its shell length is usually smaller than the true tulip, reaching up to 4 inches (100 millimeter). The shell colors are also highly variable, but the black spiral lines are farther apart and more pronounced, giving the banded tulip its name. The diet of the banded tulip is similar to that of the true tulip and is composed of smaller bivalves and snails.
Florida Fighting Conch
The Florida fighting conch (Strombus alatus) is a medium-sized marine snail that is commonly found throughout Florida waters. It’s shell length can reach 4 inches (100 millimeters) and is characterized by several spines on the top of the shell and a protruding, often dark, outer lip with a smooth body whorl. These snails are often observed on Gulf Coast beaches, and after periods of intense winds or wave action, hundreds of Florida fighting conch may be found washed onshore. The Florida fighting conch is an herbivore (plant eater) and its common name comes from the observation of males fighting each other.
Florida Crown Conch
The Florida crown conch (Melongena corona) is a small- to medium-sized marine snail frequently found on oyster reefs. Its shells can reach a length of 5 inches (120 millimeters) and have several sharp spines located around the top, giving it a crownlike appearance. Crown conchs are carnivores and prey primarily on small bivalves.
Scientists with the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute record the number of horse conchs, lightning whelks and tulip snails observed during bay scallop surveys each year and record the number and tonnage of snails that are reported on commercial trip tickets. Those landing data can be found in the Commercial Fisheries Landings in Florida article. Several snails are collected commercially for human consumption, for use as bait in other fisheries or for sale as ornamentals to retail dealers or aquarium owners. Many snails are also collected by recreational harvesters. For more information about Florida's marine-life fishery for the aquarium trade and related data, view the article Marine Life and Tropical Ornamentals.
These species are edible, but consumers should follow the Florida Department of Health seafood safety guidelines and only consume shellfish collected from areas open to harvesting, which can be found on Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website.