Conches: Characteristics, Species and Horns

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queen conch
Conches are widely eaten in the Caribbean and other places. The animals are usually removed by making a cut in the shell, where the animal attaches itself, causing it plop out in a blubbery glob. To keep the shell in pristine condition, some people tie a string around the foot of the animals and hang it from a tree. The animals is slowly pulled out. After a couple days it stinks to high heaven and, with some species, the stretched out animals is almost a meter in length.

The family Strombidae is sometimes referred to as "true conches". There are over 60 species in this group. Queen conches, hawkwing conches, strawberry conches, Lister's conch and dog conches are true conches. Many other species are also called "conch", even though they are not closely related to Strombidae. These include 1) the Melongena species (family Melongenidae); 2) the horse conch (Triplofusus papillosus, family Fasciolariidae) and 3) Turbinella species (family Turbinellidae); and 4) the Triton's trumpets (family Charoniidae). The sacred chank or shankha shell is a member of the Turbinella family.

The meat of conches can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in burgers, chowders, fritters, and gumbos. All parts of the conch meat are edible. Conch meat is very popular in the Bahamas, where its is deep fried and served in salads and soups. It is also widely eaten elsewhere in the West Indies. Turks and Caicos has a conch festival. Jamaicans like conch stews and curries. In the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Haiti, conch is commonly eaten in curries or in a spicy soup. In Panama, conch is known as cambombia and is often served as ceviche. Conch is very popular in Italy and among Italian Americans. Eighty percent of the queen conch meat in international trade is imported into the United States.

The largest gastropod is the trumpet conch of Australia. According to the Guinness Book of Records, one specimen found in 1979 had a 7.2 centimeters (30.4-inch) shell with a maximum girth of 100.33 (39.5 inches). It weighed nearly 18 kilograms (40 pounds) when it was alive.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal

Conch Characteristics

Conches have spiral-shaped shell, sometimes with a glossy interior. They have a soft body that lives inside the shell with large eyes on the end of stalks that can be moved independently and a tube-like mouth called a proboscis that can pull into its shell if threatened. Amputated eyes grow back. [Source: NOAA]

Conches are sea snails. Their shells typically have a high spire and a noticeable siphonal canal (the shell comes to a noticeable point at both ends). A conch shell is very strong. About 95 percent of the shell is comprised of calcium carbonate and 5 percent organic matter.

Inside the mouth of the conch is a radula (a tough ribbon covered in rows of microscopic teeth). Most of the organs are in the mantle collar. When the soft parts of the animal are removed from the shell, several organs are distinguishable externally, including the kidney, the nephiridial gland, the pericardium, the genital glands, stomach, style sac and the digestive gland. In adult males, the penis is also visible.

Many species have a large and powerful foot. The base of the anterior end of the foot has a distinct groove, which contains the opening of the pedal gland, which secrete adhesive substances. Attached to the posterior end of the foot sickle-shaped operculum, which is reinforced by a distinct central rib. The base of the posterior two-thirds of the animal's foot is rounded; only the anterior third touches the ground during locomotion. The columella, the central pillar within the shell, serves as the attachment point for the white columellar muscle. Contraction of this strong muscle allows the animal's soft parts to shelter in the shell in response to undesirable stimuli. [Source: Wikipedia]

The vast majority of conch shells typically have a high and curled spire, which is the twisted point at the end of the shell. They also have a very noticeable siphonal canal. Conchs produce hundreds of thousands of eggs when they reproduce, unfortunately only a small fraction of these will actually develop into an adult snail. Larval conch feed on phytoplankton, juvenile conch feed primarily on seagrass detritus macroalgae and organic material in the sediment, and adults feed primarily on different types of filamentous algae.

Conch Trumpets and Horns

Blowing a conch horn dressed as an Aztec at the Señor del Sacromonte in Amecameca, Mexico State

Conches have been put to use a "seashell horns" and "shell trumpets" for thousands of years. Their natural conical bore allows them to produce a loud, wind-instrument like trumpeting sounds. A 17,000-year-old conch shell found in the Pyrenees in southern France in 1931 was used as a horn by ancient hunter-gatherers. Conch shell trumpets continue to be played in many Pacific Island countries, as well as South America and Southern Asia. [Source: Wikipedia]

The most widely used species are tritons ('trumpet shell'), cassis ('helmet shell') and strombus ('true conch'). Completely unmodified conches can produce a sound. A mouth hole may be created. Wooden, bamboo, or metal mouthpieces may be inserted into the end of the shell. Embouchure is used to produce notes from the harmonic series.

Examples exist from the Magdalenian period (23,000 and 14,000 years ago). The "conch Marsoulas", an archeological Charonia lampas shell trumpet is displayed at the Museum de Toulouse. A Charonia tritonis nodifera] conch trumpet found In Israel-Palestine dates from the third millennium B.C.

Throughout Mesoamerican history, conch trumpets were used, often in a ritual context. In Ancient Maya art, such conches were often decorated with ancestral images. Quechua (Inca descendants) still use the conch. The Queen Conch Strombus gigas was, and sometimes still is, used as a trumpet in the West Indies and other parts of the Caribbean. The Arawak word ‘fotuto’ was used to describe this instrument, and is still used to this day to refer to conch horns, and analogously, to bullhorns.

Conch shell trumpets were also historically used throughout the Pacific and Oceania, in places like present-day Fiji.Traditionally, Fijians used the conch shell when the chief died. When his body was brought down a special path and the conch was played until the chief's body reached the end of the path.

An Indian conch, partially processed with an Echoplex delay, was featured prominently in the score for the film Alien (1979). Initially, composer Jerry Goldsmith used the conch during a scene depicting the extraterrestrial environment of a derelict spaceship. Director Ridley Scott, however was so enamored by the eerie effect that he insisted the sound be used throughout the film, including during the opening and closing credits.

Conch Shells, Hinduism and Ancient India

The conch is a symbol associated with the Hindu gods Vishnu and the hero Lord Krishna. In the Mahabharata, Krishna blew the conch shell to announce the start and end of battles. The sacred chank, Turbinella pyrum was first mentioned in the Artharvaveda (c. 1000 B.C.).

The conch is thought to have served as a horn-trumpet in ancient Indian. Epics from that time have heroes carrying conch shells. The Indian god Vishnu has a conch shell as one of his symbols. The conch shell is an emblem of power, authority, and sovereignty; its blast is believed to banish evil spirits, avert natural disasters, and scare away poisonous creatures. Shells that spiral to the right are very rare and considered especially sacred.

The kar-dung (conch shell horn) has survived as the original horn trumpet since time immemorial. Ancient Indian epics describe how each hero of mythical warfare carried a mighty white conch shell, which often bore a personal name. Tibetan Buddhism absorbed the conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. [Source: \=]

Ancient Indian belief classifies the conch into male and female varieties. The thicker-shelled bulbous one is thought to be the male (purusha), and the thin-shelled slender conch to be the female (shankhini). Additionally, there is a fundamental classification of conch shells occurring in nature: those that turn to the left and those which turn to the right. Shells which spiral to the right in a clockwise direction are a rarity and are considered especially sacred. The right-spiraling movement of such a conch is believed to echo the celestial motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars across the heavens.

Conches and Tibetan Buddhism

20080227-8_auspicious_signs kala.jpg
Eight Auspicious Symbols
Can you guess which one is a conch
In Tibetan Buddhism, the White Conch Shell is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols, symbolizing the propagation of the Buddhist doctrine, blown to signal prayer time and celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment and the potential of all humans for enlightenment. The Conch Shell (dun) has traditionally been used in Buddhist worship as a trumpet or offertory vessel and symbolizes the spoken word of Buddha. Among the eight symbols, it stands for the fame of the Buddha’s teaching, which spreads in all directions like the sound of the conch trumpet.

Traditionally, the conch is used in Tibetan Buddhism for various ritual purposes; such as for ritual instrument during the prayer ceremony, for making offering, for ritual auspicious symbol and so forth. During actual ritual ceremony, it is played in paired with other ritual instrument. The hair whorls on Buddha’s head spiral to the right, as do his fine body hairs, the long curl between his eyebrows (urna), and also the conch-like swirl of his navel. One example of a conch shell trumpets (rag gshog-ma) from of Reting Monastery, not far from Lhasa is made from a Left-turning conch shell. It has 1) brass construction with copper trim; 2) applied turquoise and coral embellishments; 3) braided cloth with a delicate white sacred scarf (khata), symbolic of purity and charity; and 4) green and red silk pieces symbolic of the sense of touch. Played in pairs, contributing to the drone. [Source: National Music Museum, University of South Dakota ^|^]

Another kind of conch shell trumpet—the dung dkar—has an exposed shell with a silver medallion of the Two Fishes, one of the eight auspicious symbols, and red coral mounted at the center of medallion. The mouthpiece is formed by removing tip of the spire. Natural spiral of shell creates channel for air to pass. Coral and conch shells are highly prized items of trade in Tibet, as they represent the far-removed exoticism of the ocean. ^|^

Conch Shell Horns and Japan

Yamabushi — followers of sect of Shingon Buddhists — wear a distinct costume that consists of a white tunic and super baggy pants stuffed into cloth boots. They have black lacquered cups strapped to their forehead, two furry pom poms dangling from the neck, a variety of trinkets hanging from their waist and a huge conch shell at their side. Shingon Buddhists practice “takigyo” — standing under freezing cold waterfalls at several temples.. Participants wear white gowns and headbands and chant as they stand under the waterfalls. Sometimes they chant as conch shells are blown.

In Japan this kind of conch trumpet is known as the horagai. It spread across Asia with Buddhism and was first mentioned during the Heian period (A.D. 794–1185). Shingon Buddhist priests practice a ritual known as homa, which sometimes includes beating drums and blowing horagai. The shell of choice is the large triton shell Charonia tritonis.

Unlike most shell trumpets from other parts of the world which produce only one pitch, the Japanese hora or horagai can produce three or five different notes. The different pitches are achieved using a bronze or wooden mouthpiece attached to the apex of the shell's spire. At freezing temperatures (often encountered in the mountainous regions of Japan) the lips may freeze to the metal surface, so wooden or bamboo mouthpieces are used.

In warfare, conch shell, called jinkai, or "war shell", were one of several signal devices used by samurai warrirs. Typically, a large conch was fitted with a bronze (or wooden) mouthpiece. It was held in an openwork basket and blown with a different combination of "notes" to signal troops to attack, withdraw, or change strategies not unlike how a bugle is used in the west. Today, the sound of jinkai is often used in television dramas and motion pictures, including “The Last Samurai” (2007), with Tom Cruise.

Horse Conches

a conch among gastropods

Florida horse conches (Scientific name: Pleuroploca gigantea) are large conches found in the western Atlantic Ocean from North Carolina to Florida and into Mexico. Also known as the Florida horse conch, they are the largest sea shell found in the American and are typically found in coastal areas, living among sand and weeds in the shallow marine waters of the Atlantic Ocean. They are sometimes eaten and and are said to have a "peppery" taste. [Source: Amanda Miller, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

The Florida horse sometimes reach a length of 60 centimeters (two feet). It has ten whorls, and its shoulders bear large, low nodules. The operculum is a leathery brown color, the aperture is orange, and the animal itself is brick red in color. These conches are usually solitary creatures. They are carnivores that feed on bivalves and other snails. After mating, the female attaches capsule-like structures to rock or old shell. Each capsule contains several dozen eggs for the young snails to feed upon. The capsule contains 5-6 circular rims, and they are laid in clumps. The young emerge and are an orange color, approximately 3.5 inches in diameter. /=\

The overharvesting horse conch for its popular shell is increasingly threatening the species. According to National Geographic: Horse conchs are at higher risk of extinction after a century of unregulated harvesting of their shells, a new study finds. Using chemical isotopes from conch shells to gauge age and reproductive maturity, scientists found that females spawn late in life. Overharvesting could cost many that chance. Though the horse conch is Florida’s state seashell, gathering it there isn’t limited — a step that could help save it, says study author Gregory S. Herbert. [Source: Cynthia Barnett, National Geographic, July, 14, 2022]

Queen Conch

Queen conches (Scientific name: Alger gigas) are also known as Strombus gigas, Lobatus gigas, conches, pink conches, carrucho, caracol reina. Regarded as one of the most valuable species in the Caribbean region, they are a large gastropod mollusk and are highly sought after for their meat. [Source: NOAA]

Queen conches can weigh up to 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) and reach 30 centimeters (one foot) in length. Their lifespan is 30 years. They occurs throughout the Caribbean Sea, in the Florida Keys, and the Gulf of Mexico, and around Bermuda. They use different habitat types including seagrass beds, sand flats, algal beds, and rubble areas from a few centimeters deep to approximately 30 meters. Adult distributions are heavily influenced by food availability and fishing pressure; in unexploited areas, they are most common in shallow marine waters less than 30 meters depth.

Queen conch are slow growing and late to mature. They are benthic-grazing herbivores that feed on diatoms, seagrass detritus, and various types of algae and epiphytes. Adult queen conch prefer sandy algal flats, but are also found on gravel, coral rubble, smooth hard coral, and beach rock bottom, while juveniles are primarily associated with seagrass beds.

Threats to queen conches include overharvesting them and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing The Florida Keys were a major source of queen conches until the 1970s,. The conches are now scarce and all harvesting of them in Florida waters is prohibited and individuals that get caught doing so can be jailed or heavily fined. In September 2022, NOAA proposed listing the queen conches as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Queen Conch Characteristics

A) queen conch (Strombus gigas)
B) species of freshwater snail (Pachychilus laevisimus)
C) Malaysian trumpet snail, a freshwater snail (Melanoides tuberculata)
D) species of cowrie (Cypraea spurca acicularis)
E) hawk-wing conch (Strombus raninus)

Queen conch are characterized by a large, heavy, whorl-shaped shell with multiple short spines at the apex, a brown and horny operculum, and an interior inside the shell lip. The interior is glossy pink or orange. Females on average grow more quickly than males, to a larger size, and have greater weight than males. [Source: NOAA]

The external anatomy of the soft parts of A. gigas is similar to that of other snails in the family Strombidae; it has a long snout, two eyestalks with well-developed eyes, additional sensory tentacles, a strong foot and a corneous, sickle-shaped operculum.

Queen conch have unusual means of getting around. The gastropod first fixes the posterior end of the foot by thrusting the point of the sickle-shaped operculum into the substrate, then it extends the foot in a forward direction, lifting and throwing the shell forward in a so-called leaping motion. This way of moving has been compared to pole vaulting. The conches are good climbers — able to ven surmount vertical concrete walls. The leaping motions may help deter predators that would otherwise follow the snail's chemical traces left on a continuous trail on the ocean floor.

Queen Conch Shell

The adult queen conch has a very large, solid and heavy shell, with knob-like spines on the shoulder, a flared, thick outer lip, and a characteristic pink or orange aperture (opening). The outside of the queen conch is sandy colored, helping them blend in with their surroundings. The flared lip is absent in juveniles; it develops once the snail reaches reproductive age. The thicker the shell's flared lip is, the older the conch is. [Source: Wikipedia]

The queen conch shell is very beautiful shells. Early American civilizations used them as horn for religious ceremonies; their lustrous pink interiors were fashioned into jewelry such as shell earrings, bracelets and hair pins. The shells were highly valued as decorative piece in 17th century Europe. They were made into decorative features such as fireplace surrounds and lampstands, in stately homes .

The queen conch shells’s beauty combined with its large size are what make it so desired and valued. Fully grown queen conch shells range in size from 15 to 31 centimeters (5.9 to 12.2 inches). Completely intact specimens are the most valuable and are relatively rare. The large frilled lip and knobbly spines are easily damaged. Any scratches or cracks can significantly reduce a shell’s value. [Source: Nicholas Argent, Citrus Reef]

Queen Conch Reproduction and Development

Queen conch is a long lived species, generally reaching 25 to 30 years old, and are believed to reach sexual maturity around 3.5 to 4 years of age. They have determinate growth and reach maximum shell length before sexual maturation; thereafter the shell grows only in thickness. Size at maturity can vary depending on environmental conditions.

Queen conch have a protracted spawning season of 4 to nine months, with peak spawning during warmer months. They reproduce through internal fertilization, meaning individuals must be in contact to mate.Females can store fertilized eggs for several weeks, and eggs may be fertilized by multiple males. Egg laying takes 24 to 36 hours, with each egg mass containing about 750,000 eggs. After an incubation period of about 5 days the eggs hatch, and the veligers (larvae) drift in the water column from 21 to 30 days before settling to the bottom and metamorphosing into the adult form.

Queen conch are slow moving marine snails that require direct contact to mate and these life history traits make them vulnerable to depensatory processes which impact reproductive success and impedes recovery of depleted populations.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated April 2023

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