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Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

A QUEEN
slow-moving but long-lived marine defense against predators by using
snail, the queen conch (pronounced it as a shield. The foot also serves
konk) has become a lasting as a lever for righting the conch
symbol of the relaxed pace of life in when its shell is tipped upside

CONCH
the Florida Keys. Once harvested for down or to one side, and it is the
its tasty meat and beautiful shell, the foot that contains the sweet white
queen conch is now protected from meat that is used to make conch
harvest and efforts are being directed fritters, conch chowder, and other
toward understanding and monitoring
the recovery of the native population.
Florida's culinary delights.
The conch is an invertebrate
Spectacular Sea Snail with a soft body, which consists of
the blackspeckled foot; a head
Description with bright hazel eyes perched on the end of two
The queen conch is actually a soft-bodied protruding stalks; two slender, sensitive tentacles;
mollusk encased in a large, flared shell. Indeed, its and a snout-like mouth (proboscis), which the conch
original scientific name, Strombus gigas, means giant extends to graze on algae. Enclosing the internal
spiral shell. organs is a snug, orange or yellow fleshy covering
Like all snails, the queen conch has a single foot called the mantle, which secretes the shell and also
with which it propels itself. In most marine snails, houses the feathery gills that allow the conch to
this foot is broad and sturdy, enabling the animal to extract oxygen from the water.
glide along the ocean bottom smoothly. However the
foot of the queen conch is narrow and ends in a
large, tough plate or claw, called an operculum. The queen conch advances about half its body
When the conch wants to move forward, it plants the length with each leap on its claw-tipped foot.
operculum on the bottom and pushes off like a pole
vaulter, resulting in a jerky, lurching motion that one
author has described as a series of grotesque leaps The eyes of the queen conch are more highly
and tumblings. Besides propelling the conch developed than those of most other sea snails. Its
forward, this appendage is also useful in several excellent eyesight is supplemented by its tentacles,
other ways. A conch can use its operculum for which are also used to feel and taste the water.

Scientific name Lobatus gigas, originally known as Strombus gigas


Size To 12 inches, 5 pounds
Range Florida Keys north to St. Lucie Inlet on the east coast
Habitat Sandy and hard bottoms; coral rubble; also in seagrass beds
Status Listed as a protected species in Florida; harvest prohibited in
federal and state waters
The blood of the queen conch is a colorless liquid
called hemocyanin, which contains copper. It is
Range and Habitat
similar to the iron-containing hemoglobin in vertebrate Queen conch are found off Bermuda, the Bahamas,
animals. In the process of respiration, oxygen turns and throughout the entire Caribbean. Of the 55
the hemocyanin bluemaking queen conch true species of conch worldwide, six occur in Caribbean
bluebloods of the animal kingdom. and Florida waters. Conch are usually found in warm,
The queen conchs shell is its most striking shallow waters. Although they have been found in
feature. Adults have a heavy shell with a broad, flared waters 500 feet deep, they are most abundant in
lip that is a glossy pink, orange, or yellow on the waters ranging from 1 to 70 feet deep. Despite their
interior. The outside of the shell is marked by a blunt painstakingly slow speed, conch may wander for
crown of spines that project from each whorl of the miles foraging on seaweed, algae-encrusted rocks, or
spiral. Queen conch are right-handed, meaning decaying organic matter.
that as the observer looks at the pointed crown, the In Florida, queen conch are most abundant in the
spiral coils to the right. A brown, papery layer called Florida Keys but are occasionally found as far north
the periostracum covers the shell and collects silt, as St. Lucie Inlet on the east coast. Adults are most
bacteria, and algae, which help to disguise the numerous in coral rubble and in hard-bottom
animal. The periostracum flakes off when the shell is communities of soft corals and sponges, but they
removed from the water and dried. also take up residence on sandy bottoms and in
A queen conch shell can be as long as 12 inches seagrass beds. From April to October, adult conch
and weigh as much as 5 pounds. In Bermuda, queen gather to spawn offshore in large colonies of up to
conch may live 40 years, but in Florida their life span 10,000 individuals.
is estimated to be 10 to 20 years. The large shell of the queen conch accommodates
Queen conch are among the largest gastropods a variety of other creatures. Cardinal fish (conch fish)
(or snail-like animals) in the sea. Queen conch may often take up residence within this spacious mobile
increase their shell length by as much as three inches home, and slipper limpetsa type of snailattach
a year during their active growing stage. After the themselves to the shells exterior. A small crab can
animal attains sexual maturity, its shell continues to also find comfortable living quarters when wedged
thicken, but its lengthwise growth stops. between the shell and the conchs foot.

Adult female conch without her shell

Art after B.D. Egan, 1985. MS thesis,


University of British Columbia.

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Life History Some females may spawn six to eight times during
each spawning season. The egg cases are released as
Conch begin life as creatures so small they can be a mass of tightly wound gelatinous tubes that contain
seen only with a microscope. These larvae, or about 400,000 embryos.
veligers, bear no
Veliger larva resemblance to the final Egg mass Section of egg strand
form. A veliger has two
wing-like lobes covered
with bristly stubble
called ciliawhich help about
it swim and direct food to 6 inches long
its mouthand a tiny, After four to five days, the embryos emerge from
transparent shell that the egg cases as larval veligers and may be carried
will eventually become great distances by currents before settling to the
the familiar curved ocean floor and beginning their conch development in
adornment of the mature queen conch. The larvae earnest. Very few will survive to adulthood. Veligers
grow new lobes as they mature. By the fourth day of are eaten by other small, swimming creatures, and
life, the veliger has four of these lobes; by the end of the fragile shells of juvenile conch make them easy
its first week, it has six. prey for crabs, sharks, rays, groupers, octopus, and
Veligers spend the first 21 days of their existence tulip snails. Spiny lobsters and porcupine, or puffer
drifting and swimming in the ocean currents, feeding fish, are among a juvenile conchs greatest threats.
on tiny, one-celled plants called phytoplankton. Once the conch reaches adulthood, however, few
Then they settle to the sea floor, the lobes disappear, animals can prey upon it; although, adults may still
and the foot and snout-like mouth develop. Within be eaten by loggerhead sea turtles and horse conch
a month, the animal begins to take on the appearance as well as by humans.
of an adult conch in miniature as it adds to its shell
by secreting liquid calcium carbonate that quickly
hardens into crystals. Conch measure about three Economic Importance
inches in length at one year of age and about six Queen conch have been part of the human diet for
inches by the second year. These young conch are centuries. Prehistoric Indians who lived in south
called rollers because their shells do not yet have Florida 3,000 years ago ate conch meat and used the
the stable, flaring lip of adults. They feed on the shells to make cooking utensils and pots, as well as
algae and decaying plant matter that clings to necklaces, pendants, earrings, and buttons. Intact
seagrass blades. shells also functioned as ceremonial items and
When the juveniles shell is about 9.5 to 12 inches trumpets, a use that still finds a following today
long, the lip forms and the shell stops growing in size among islanders with a penchant for unusual
and length. Instead, the conch directs its energy to musical instruments.
strengthening the shell and lip, so that the shell English explorers took conch shells home with
becomes thicker and heavier. This process usually them, and the shells quickly became a coveted novelty.
occurs, particularly in offshore groups, during the By the 17th century, pink conch shells adorned nearly
third year. However, some nearshore conch every fireplace mantel and were used as decorative
populations in Florida develop the flared lip in their edging in English gardens. The shells were also carved
second year. The animal reaches sexual maturity only into cameos and were ground to make a high-quality
after the lip is well developed. porcelain. In more modern times, conch shells were
Queen conch typically mate in the spring to early used as the foundation for road beds.
fall in shallow, sandy areas behind the reefs. During About one in 10,000 conch contain rare pearls,
mating, the male sits behind the female and deposits formed when an irritant invades the conchs
sperm into the female. The female may retain the mantle. These very expensive baubles, pink or
sperm for several weeks, and fertilization is internal. brown and sometimes with flame-like striations,

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are in great demand by jewelers and are obtained Researchers first examined producing conch in
from areas of the Caribbean where conch harvest hatcheries and releasing them under optimal
still occurs. However, the colors of the pearls tend conditions. However, the high cost of production
to fade with time. coupled with the high natural mortality rates of conch
Conch has long been a staple food item in the in the wild made this approach very expensive. An
Caribbean, although its meat is tough and usually alternative restoration strategy was soon developed
must be ground, pounded, or marinated in lime juice using a simpler concept. During many years of
to be made tender. In Florida, conch were harvested monitoring conch populations, FWRI scientists noted
mainly as a collectable, until a 1965 law mandated that nearshore conch do not reproduceall
that fishermen utilize the meat as well as the shell. reproduction takes place offshore. In fact, scientists
In the early days of the conch fishery, fishermen discovered that nearshore conch are physiologically
in small dinghies used glass-bottom buckets to scan incapable of reproduction. Furthermore, these
the bottom for conch and retrieved the animals with nearshore conch cannot migrate offshore because of
long, hooked poles. The fishermen often brought the a natural barrier, Hawk Channel, which is poor
conch to port alive and cleaned them by knocking a quality habitat. Yet, larvae produced offshore can ride
hole between the third and fourth whorl of the shell the currents and settle nearshore. When transplanted
and inserting a knife to separate the animal from the into offshore spawning aggregations, these same
shell. About one-fifth to one-third of the weight of an conch become reproductively viable and were mating
adult conch is edible meat. and spawning after only six months.
At one time, queen conch were so plentiful and Nevertheless, the conch population in Florida
widely used that long-time natives of the Florida Keys remained suppressed for 15 years after the 1985
were known as conchs, a nickname still used today. harvest ban; however, recent surveys indicate that the
conch population is beginning to recover. The
population of adult conch in offshore breeding
Management Efforts aggregations is estimated to be about 200,000. Since
The advent of scuba gear made conch harvesting these individuals are offshore, they are sexually
easier, and by 1966, between 200,000 and 250,000 mature and reproductively active. Conch populations
conch per year were landed in Key West. However, in in the Lower Florida Keys out to the Marquesas have
1985, Florida officials placed a complete ban on all traditionally been the largest and probably provide the
harvest in state waters. A year later, queen conch majority of the conch larvae supplying south Florida.
harvest in federal waters were closed. The queen Research is now focused on improving conch
conch is now listed in Florida as a protected species. population estimates and understanding the factors
It is also recognized by the Convention on International that are limiting reproduction in nearshore waters of
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Florida. For example, scientists have found that the
(CITES), an international conservation and trade brain in nearshore conch is also structurally
authority, as a species that may become threatened if impaired. This is particularly consequential since
management plans are not enacted appropriately. sexual development in snails is controlled by
hormones released by the brain. However, the
causative factor(s) behind the physical and
Research Efforts developmental deficiencies in nearshore queen conch
In Florida, scientists with the Fish and Wildlife is still unknown at this time. Additionally, tracking
Conservation Commissions Fish and Wildlife studies utilizing sonic tags that emit sound frequencies
Research Institute (FWRI) have studied methods to assist researchers to learn how transplanted conch
restore conch populations to sustainable levels. interact with native offshore conch.

July 2017

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
100 8th Avenue SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 (727) 896-8626 MyFWC.com/Research