Here's an interesting article about the Lightning Whelk and here's a photo of some of mine.
Common lightning whelk has extraordinary history
Cathy Chestnut 12:12 a.m. EDT July 18, 2015
To modern-day beach-goers, they may not be the most flamboyant species lolling along the tide line. To the ancients, however, the lightning whelk seemed to hold a prolific prominence in everyday life and spirituality.
Though Busycon sinistrum thrive in the Gulf of Mexico (from Texas to Florida to Mexico) and along the southern Atlantic coast, it played a significant role in Native American cultures, found in ritual contexts in distant lands stretching as far away as Oklahoma, New York and Manitoba, Canada.
The oldest burial they are associated with was in Kentucky that dates back 5,000 to 6,000 years — long before the Calusa settled into their Southwest Florida heartland, says University of Florida Curator of South Florida Archaeology and Ethnography and Florida Museum of Natural History’s Randell Research Center director Bill Marquardt, Ph.D.
So how did they get there? Did people travel all the way to our coast to scoop up prized lightning whelks?
“As things get farther from their area of origin, they become more valuable. If you can’t get them anywhere, they’re worth more,” says Marquardt, who speculates that they moved through “a trading network in a series of exchanges between known trading partners.”
Marquardt and former museum colleague Laura Kozuch, Ph.D., recently wrote the 65-page “The Lightning Whelk: An Enduring Icon of Eastern North American Spirituality” and presented a boiled-down version of its highlights in April at the 80th annual Society for American Archeology meeting.
In it, they pieced together the marine mollusk’s political, social, economic and spiritual import based on a century of research by many experts, threading together a basic theme: that the shell itself was an “essential component” that linked birth, life and death through sacred symbolism.
“There’s been some great work done so what we’re doing is pulling together a lot of information about how it’s been used throughout the eastern U.S. and how it is special,” he says.
What makes this whelk special? Unlike virtually every snail in the world, Marquardt says, it opens to the left, not the right. (Left-opening snails are called sinistral). When viewed from the top of the spire, tracing the whorl from the outer lip to the center, it runs clockwise, not the more common counter-clockwise.
“It wasn’t just a handy shell you could carve something on or use as a container. Part of its importance is that with this particular species, it opens to the left or spirals to the right—that’s very special.”
Marquardt ties the shell’s clockwise “movement” winding up in the interior of the shell to the east-motion movement of the sun, which has long signified light to darkness, and birth to death, in native beliefs, a concept so crucial it is reflected in dancing ceremonies, hut construction, the seating of tribal elders and more.
“A lot of things are associated with this directional movement,” he says.
The Calusa, who lived in Southwest Florida from 500 A.D. to the late 1700s, included the lightning whelk into their daily life, fashioning them into tools for hammering, cutting, perforating and woodworking and into objects such as adzes, atlatls, net sinkers, containers, beads and pendants. And they ate a lot of them, too. Tens of thousands of the shells are in Calusa mounds throughout the region.
Here are some of the places the lightning whelk has turned up through the millennia. Highlighting their importance — All were specially included in grave sites or linked to important ceremonies and rituals.
•Large lightning whelk cups were used throughout the southeast and in Florida to consume a caffeinated ritual beverage called “black drink.” Black drink was made with Ilex vomitoria (yaupon holly) and served to impress visitors or stay up for days to dance on a vision quest.
“I imagine they did see visions. If you drink enough, it will make you vomit,” says Marquardt.
•750 to 1,000 lightning whelk shell artifacts were found in burial mounds in Kentucky that date from 3,000 to 6,000 years old.
• In East St. Louis, Illinois, a carved, stone figurine showing a woman presenting a lightning whelk shell cup was found at a site where a structure had been burned. (It’s the only stone representation of a lightning whelk shell cup ever found.)
• Mississippian (1,000 to 1,700 A.D.) bead-makers may have spent up to 87 percent of their time making beads from lightning whelk shells, even though its density — with a value of iron — makes it much more difficult compared to other types of shells. The columella (interior spiral) of the shell was fashioned into beads. While it could have taken only one hour to craft a bead from other marine snails, it would require about six hours to fashion one from the lightning whelk.
• The “best-known and most symbolically charged” artifacts, Marquardt notes, are the drinking shell cups and gorgets — circular pendants with two suspension holes. Etched into some of the designs are a “birdman” or “hawk dancer,” often wearing a lightning whelk pendant.
“Somehow they made their way up there and were considered very special. They didn’t end up in the trash dumps. It’s clear they were very precious and perhaps spiritual,” Marquardt says.
Lightning whelk facts
José H. Leal, Ph.D., Science Director & Curator of The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, shares some facts about lightning whelks.
•Lightning whelks (Busycon sinistrum) are mollusk gastropods.
•The males are always smaller than females.
•Females are light in color, almost white.
•Females can be fertilized by many males at the same time, providing genetic variation.
•Distinctive chain-like egg cases contain liquid with antibiotic properties that protects and nourishes embryos.
“People are always dumbfounded when they first see them,” Leal says. “Through casual observation, they look like snakeskin.”
•There are 20 to 50 eggs per egg case, which are attached to the sea bottom but are found along the shoreline following major storms.
•They are tough predators that feed on live bivalves, favoring the tough and hardy quahog.
“It grabs the quahog, inserts its shell, and pushes on it patiently” until the slammed-shut quahog is pried open, Leal explains. “The central part is harder than the surrounding part of the shell edge. It needs to be strong so it won’t break easily,” hence the iron-hard value.
•They typically grow between15 to 30 cm in length. The world record is 40.2 cm (15.8 inches) long, found in Carrabelle in the Florida Panhandle.
•They are eaten by other predators depending on their size — stingrays and bottom-feeding sharks, blue crabs and stone crabs.
•Their left-hand opening “sets them apart from anything else. It was just a mutation in that species that happened. It wasn’t detrimental to the animal, so it just remains.”
•It is against the law to collect live shells of any type.