Shell Snails
Snails, or Gastropods, appeared in the Lower Cambrian period around 500 million years ago. Unlike their relatives the bivalves which appeared just a little later, snails are quite mobile, even if slowly, and were able to extend their domain to land - to the distress of gardeners everywhere.


General & History

Gastropods first appeared in the seas of the Lower Cambrian period more than 500 million years ago and long before there was any life at all on land. They were immediately successful and have since expanded their range to include fresh water and your garden.

"Gastropod" means "stomach foot" which is inaccurate because the stomach is up inside the shell, but they do sort of "crawl around on their belly". Gastropod shells (not all have shells) expand in a spiral form off to one side of the body as the occupant grows.

Some gastropods are vegetarian but others are notorious for drilling into and eating oysters, clams and other bivalves as well as other gastropods. Others will eat just about any organic material they can find.

Cleaning & Cooking

Land snails need a lot more pre-preparation than sea or fresh water snails because of the slime they depend on for getting around. Basic preparation for small snails is to keep them away from food for 2 to 5 days depending on species to clean out their digestive tract. Land snails then need to be de-slimed by application of salt or by other means.

Larger snails like conch can be properly disassembled and cleaned so do not need any pre-prep (except a good pounding to tenderize them). Details for cleaning and preparation are included in the sub-article for each variety (click on the picture or "Details and Cooking").


Abalone   -   [Awabi (Japan), Abulon (Sp), genus Haliotis various species]
Two Live Abalone

There are eight species of abalone off the coast of California. Red abalone can get up to a foot long but not many get much beyond the 7 inch minimum even though harvesting them is highly restricted (free diving only, no SCUBA or air tubes, strict limits and closed areas).

All wild abalone populations on the California coast are endangered or severely threatened due to poor fishery management, largely the result of inadequate data. The only exception is red abalone where severe restrictions have been somewhat effective. Some stocks are considered beyond natural recovery and must be restored by captive breeding and concentration by transplanting, particularly white abalone which is near extinction. Stocks in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are similarly threatened.

The high price abalone fetches and the short supply has made aquaculture viable. Three species are farmed in California: Red (H. rufescens) in northern regions, Pink (H. corrugata) and Green (photo H. fulgens) in southern regions and Baja California. Abalone are fed California giant kelp, the harvest of which is also strictly regulated.   Details and Cooking.

Apple Snail   -   [Pila polita of family Ampullariidae]
Apple Snails in Shells

The largest of freshwater snails Apple Snails (various species) are found in tropical and subtropical wetlands worldwide. While some species can grow to 6 inches, the largest of the photo specimens was 2.6 inches long and weighed 1.9 ounces. Others in the batch, frozen whole in Vietnam, were smaller. For greater economy, buy frozen packages of apple snail meat - 50 or more for the same price as a dozen in the shell.

The Pila snails in the photo are native to Southeast Asia and are a preferred eating snail. Unfortunately uneducated nitwits with get rich schemes have illegally imported Pomacea canaliculata from South America to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Hawaii. These snails have never been a commercial success because snail eaters don't like them much and they are devastating rice and taro crops wherever introduced, causing severe economic damage and driving out the local snails.   Details and Cooking.

Blunt Creeper Snail   -   [Mud Creeper, Matah Merah, Belitong, Chut-chut, Hoy jup jeng (Thai), Longburm (Aust.) Cerithidea obtusa, of family Potamididae]
Blunt Creeper Empty Shells

Found in the brackish waters of mangrove swamps in Southeast Asia and Australia, these snails are gathered from the trunks and branches of the mangroves and sold live in local markets. The photo specimens were from Vietnam and labeled "Top Shell" which they are not. The largest would have been about 1-3/4 inches long if the tip hadn't been broken off. The tips are generally slightly broken in nature but these have been broken farther down to facilitate eating them.   Details and Cooking.

Brown Garden Snail   -   [Petit Gris (French), Helix aspersa var muller (alt Cantareus aspersus)]
Brown Garden Snails

These snails have been introduced to various parts of the world by French immigrants, often with ill conceived dreams of snail farming and always with disastrous consequences. They have become quite a pest in California and cost many millions of dollars every year. Only ducks, rats and Frenchmen seem to want to eat them.

One of the primary "escargot" snails of France, Petit Gris gets up to 1-3/8 inches across the shell. The other two snails eaten by the French are Gros Gris (H. aspersa var maxima) which grows to 1-3/4 inches and the Bourgogne Snail (H. Pomatia) which gets a little bigger than 2 inches. Neither of these is a problem in California, we're stuck with the little ones.   Details and Cooking.   Photo © i0021.

Conch - Queen Conch   -   [Pink Conch, Tricornis gigas]
Empty Queen Conch Shell

Pronounced "konk", this snail is found throughout the greater Caribbean region from South Carolina to Venezuela and around the Atlantic island of Bermuda. They can grow to about 13 inches long but the photo specimen is 8-1/2 inches. They reach sexual maturity in about three years when they will be about 8 inches long and weigh about 2 pounds

Long an important food item in the Caribbean it is now in serious decline throughout its range. Because much of the region's population is poor and lacks education local fishery controls are often ineffective so international trade sanctions are in effect. It is illegal to take any queen conch in U.S. waters or to import them, their meat, shells or products made from them from a number of countries. Import from some countries is still allowed but it's becoming rather expensive due to scarcity.

Restocking efforts have failed because captive grown conch lack survival instincts and are immediately eaten when placed in the ocean. It has recently been discovered, however, that queen conch are turned on by pheromones drifting over from wildly mating conch of a smaller species causing them to mate and spawn. This opens the possibility of closed cycle aquaculture.   Details and Cooking.

Locos / Chilaen Abalone   -   [Concholepas concholepas of family Muricidae]
Live Locos Snails

These look a bit like Abalone, but are not at all related. Abalone are primitive vegetarians, and Locos are highly developed murex predators. They live mostly on mussels and barnacles, and are native to the entire length of the coasts of Peru and Chile, including Cape Horn.

The name "locos" is from a native language of the region, but "loco" is Spanish for "crazy", resulting in amusing mistranslations. Sustainability of the wild harvest of these snails is problematic, even with strict controls, so aquaculture is being studied.   Details and Cooking.

Moon Snails   -   [probably Lunatia lewisii of family Naticidae]
Live Moon Snails

Moon Snails are a large, worldwide family of aggressive predators. The largest is Lunatia lewisii, which can grow up to 5 inches across. It is native to the Eastern Pacific from British Columbia, Canada, south to Baja California, Mexico. It primarily eats bivalves, but will eat any other molusk it can catch.

The photo specimens were purchased from a large Asian market in Alhambra, California. The largest was 2-1/2 inches in the longest dimension and weighed 3-1/4 ounces. There was a much larger one in the tank, but I wasn't sure if it was alive or not. Yield for 1 pound 3-3/8 ounces was 5-1/2 ounces (28%) of which 4-3/8 ounces was firm meat (23%).   Details and Cooking.

Periwinkles   -   [Littorina littorea (common periwinkle) and related Littorina species]
Live Periwinkles

These small snails can get as large as 2 inches long, but the largest in the photo batch was 1.2 inches. They live mainly in the surf zone of rocky coastlines, so their shells are quite thick and often worn. The best known periwinkle, L. littorea, is native to the North Atlantic shores of Europe but seems to have made it to North America fairly early, some say with Scandinavians who were known to have cut timber for export to Iceland as far south as New Jersey, well before Columbus' voyage. It is now also found on the East Pacific coast from Washington State to California. Other species live worldwide and vary considerably in shape and decoration.   Details and Cooking.

Whelks   -   [families Buccinidae, Muricidae, others]
Whelks are a large worldwide family of carnivorous snails Some are scavengers, but most are active predators, boring into clams, crabs, lobsters and even other whelks. Whelks are a popular eating mollusk in Asia and in Europe but are less eaten in North America - but you don't have to feel guilty about eating these - they are killers.

Caution:   not all whelks are edible and some edible ones can be toxic when the mollusks they eat have been eating toxic algae. Consult the local fisheries service for any applicable warnings.

Kellet's Whelk   -   [Kelletia kelleti]
Live Kellet's Whelks

This heavy shelled whelk was introduced from the Sea of Japan and is now found on the west coast of North America from Monterey, California south around the tip of Baja California into the Gulf of California. They are both scavengers and predators. They compete with starfish for food, and are sometimes eaten by starfish. The photo specimens were purchased live from a large Asian market in San Gabriel, California. The largest was 5.25 inches long and weighed 8.2 ounces.   Details and Cooking.

Channeled Whelk   -   [Busycotypus canaliculatus, formerly Busycon canaliculatum]
Live Channeled Whelks

This light shelled whelk is native to the east coast of North America, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts south to northern Florida, and has been introduced to San Francisco Bay. This whelk feeds on hard shelled clams, which it pries open with the edge of its shell, which tends to be chipped, as in the photo. They are preyed upon by blue crabs. The photo specimens were purchased live from a large Asian market in Alhambra, California. The largest was 6-1/4 inches long and weighed 8-3/8 ounces. Yield was 2-3/4 ounces (33%) of flesh after steaming long enough to release it.   Details and Cooking.

Knobbed Whelk   -   [Busycon carica]
Live Knobbed Whelk

This large, heavy shelled whelk is native to the east coast of North America, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, south to northern Florida. It feeds on clams, mussels and oysters, which it pries open with the edge of its shell, which tends to be a bit chipped. Once the clam is slightly opened, the whelk extends it's mouth into the shell. It then shreds the victim alive with it's rasp like radula, and digests it. These whelks are preyed upon by crabs. and starfish. They can grow to 12 inches long, but the one in the photo was 7-3/4 inches and weighed 2 pounds.   Details and Cooking.

Common Whelk   -   [Buccinum undatum and similar Buccinum species]
Common Whelks in Shell

These cold water whelks are harvested worldwide. The photo specimens were purchased lightly cooked, frozen and bagged from a large Asian market in Alhambra, California. They typically weighed 1-3/8 ounce. A 1-1/2 pound bag yielded 8-5/8 ounces of cooked edible meat (36%) after cooking just long enough to remove it from the shells.

Veined Rapa Whelk   -   [Rapana venosa]
Live Rapa Whelk

Native to the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, these large Asian whelks are now distributed worldwide as an invasive species. They have probably traveled in the larval stage in ships' ballast water. They have recently invaded the hardshell clam and oyster beds of the U.S. East Coast and are eating many of these economically valuable molusks.

Rapa Whelks can't be eradicated, their shells are too thick for local predators to penetrate, and they are very large, more than 7 inches across. On the plus side, rapas are reputed to be a highly edible (better than conch in some opinions) so people should get used to eating them.   Photo by George Chernilevsky contributed to the public domain.

Yellow Snail   -   [unidentified]
Whole Yellow Snails

I have not yet identified these. They were purchased from a large Asian market in Alhambra, California, bagged and frozen, with no other name than "Yellow Snail". They were typically just under 2 inches long and weighed a little over 1/2 ounce each. Yield was 3-3/4 ounces (25%).

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