in large colonies of up to 10,000 individuals.The large shell of the queen conch accommodates avariety of other creatures. Pink cardinal ﬁsh (conch ﬁsh)often take up residence within this spacious “mobile”home, and slipper limpets—a type of snail—attachthemselves to the shell’s exterior. A small crab can alsoﬁnd comfortable living quarters when wedged between theshell and the conch’s foot.
Conchs begin life as creatures so small they can be seenonly with a microscope. These larvae, or “veligers,” bearno resemblance to the ﬁnal product. A veliger has twowing-like lobes covered with bristly stubble called cilia—which help it swim and direct food to its mouth—and atiny, transparent shell that willeventually become the familiarcurved adornment of themature queen conch. Thelarvae grow new lobes as theymature. By the fourth day oflife, the veliger has four ofthese lobes; by the end of itsﬁrst week, it has six.Veligers spend the ﬁrst 21days of their existence drifting and swimming in theocean currents, feeding on tiny, one-celled plants calledphytoplankton. Then they settle to the sea ﬂoor, the lobesdisappear, and the “foot” and snout-like mouth develop.Within a month, the animal begins to take on theappearance of an adult conch in miniature as it adds toits shell by secreting liquid calcium carbonate that quicklyhardens into crystals. Conchs measure about three inchesin length at one year of age and about six inches by thesecond year. These young conchs are called “rollers”because their shells do not yet have the stable, ﬂaring lipof adults. They feed on the algae and decaying plantmatter that clings to seagrass blades.When the juvenile’s shell is about 9.5 to 12 incheslong, the lip forms and the shell stops growing in size andlength. Instead, the conch directs its energy tostrengthening the shell and lip, so that the shell becomesthicker and heavier while the animal inside actuallybecomes smaller. This process usually occurs, particularlyin offshore groups, during the third year. However, somenearshore conch populations in Florida develop the ﬂaredlip in their second year. The animal reaches sexualmaturity only after the lip is well developed.Queen conchs typically mate in the summer or earlyfall in shallow, sandy areas behind the reefs. Duringmating, the male sits behind the female and depositssperm into the female. The female may retain the spermfor several weeks, and fertilization is internal. Somefemales may spawn six to eight times during eachspawning season.The egg cases are released as a mass of tightly woundgelatinous tubes that contain about 400,000 embryos.From 70 to more than 120 feet of tube strands may beproduced at a rate of about 5 feet per hour.After four to ﬁve days, the embryos emerge from theegg cases as larval veligers and may be carried greatdistances by currents before settling to the ocean ﬂoor andbeginning their conch development in earnest. Very fewwill survive to adulthood. Veligers are eaten by othersmall, swimming creatures, and the fragile shells ofjuvenile conchs make them easy prey for crabs, sharks,rays, groupers, and tulip shells. Spiny lobsters andporcupine, or puffer, ﬁsh are among a juvenile conch’sgreatest threats. Once the conch reaches adulthood,however, few animals can prey upon it, although adultsmay still be eaten by loggerhead sea turtles and horseconchs—as well as by humans.
Queen conchs have been part of the human diet forcenturies. Prehistoric Indians who lived in south Florida3,000 years ago ate conch meat and used the shells tomake cooking utensils and pots, as well as necklaces,pendants, earrings, and buttons. Intact shells alsofunctioned as ceremonial items and trumpets, a use thatstill finds a following today among islanders with apenchant for unusual musical instruments.English explorers took conch shells home with them,and the shells quickly became a coveted novelty. By the17th century, pink conch shells adorned nearly everyﬁreplace mantel and were used as decorative edging inEnglish gardens. The shells were also carved into cameosand were ground to make a high-quality porcelain. In more
Egg massSection of egg strandVeliger larva
about 6 inches long