Texas Travel

How to Find Lightning Whelk Shells

By Peter Simek 7.16.18

All of Texas’ state emblems represent something about the character of Texas. There’s the guile and aggressiveness of the mockingbird, our state bird; the subtle beauty of the bluebonnet, our state flower; and the shady comfort of the pecan, our state tree.

Our state shell, the lightning whelk, is no different. Clever, opportunistic, and nomadic, this pioneering mollusk is well-suited to represent the Lone Star State.

The Unique Shell

The beautiful lightning whelk shell is almost like a conch — long and conical with a fractallike shape radiating out from a central point. But the lightninglike colored stripes encircling the shells of the young are unique, and the shells vary greatly, making them popular treasures for sea lovers scouring the beaches of Padre Island for beautiful artifacts.

The Elusive Creature

The empty shells strewn along Texas’ beaches were once home to small sea-dwelling snails that make their homes in the thick underwater grasslands of Texas’ bays.

Sometimes, swimmers may encounter long strings of capsules, which is how the whelk lay their eggs, floating in shallow pools that form in sand beaches along the coast. But it’s rarer to see the living creature scuttling along the beach, since they have to hide from predators.

Lightning Whelk

Carnivorous Appetite

The lightning whelk is enterprising. It feasts on other shellfish, prying open the shells of clams, oysters, and scallops and wedging in them to access its prey. If it can’t get the shell open, the whelk will use its own shell to grind away at its prey’s shell until it can insert its fork-shaped tongue. It may seem a little gruesome, but the whelk is undeniably clever.

The Dangerous Environment

The shells offer the little whelks protection from predators — but they can also have drawbacks. Because they leave a path in the sand, the heavy shells make the lightning whelk easily trackable by gulls, crabs, and even other whelks that eat them. That’s when the pretty shells wind up on the beach.

Where to Find Them

Although lightning whelks appear along the Gulf Coast from North Carolina to Texas, Padre Island boasts one of the best beaches for finding shells. If you are hunting for treasures, head to Big Shell Beach, a remote sandy stretch that can only be reached by four-wheel drive.

If you decide to head out on a scavenger hunt, make sure you know the rules of seashell collecting. Texas law allows collectors to take only 15 shells from the beach per day. Along part of Padre Island, and in some other areas, taking shells is prohibited between Nov. 1 and April 30.

If you do find a lightning whelk, you will possess a unique Texas treasure, perfect for adorning your bluebonnet flowerbeds.

Heading to the coast? Get some travel inspiration and peace of mind on the road.

© 2018 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance