Queen of the Caribbean

Pick up an occupied queen conch shell from a shallow bay and hold it up to your ear and you'll get something more than the sound of the ocean. Unlike most gastropods, which glide with a wide, muscular foot along a secreted trail of slime, conchs have a small hornlike "operculum" at the base of their foot that helps them to vigorously kick along sandy habitats. When seized, they may employ this thrusting action in defense.

Perhaps most recognized by their horny, spiral shells which open up into a wide outer wing glazed in pink, orange, or yellow, these marine snails in the family Strombidae spend much of their first adult year buried in sediment. As they age, they migrate into slightly deeper waters.

Queen conchs (Strombus gigas) reach sexual maturity at about age 4. After mating between April and August of each year, females lay long gelatinous ribbons of hundreds of thousands of eggs. Larvae, plankton themselves, eat other free-floating organisms in the water. But they have only six days to make contact with an ocean-bottom habitat such as sediment or seagrass, or they will never metamorphose into adults.

While crabs, turtles, sharks, and rays eat conchs, their biggest predators are humans, who have over-collected them and their beautiful shells for food, tools, and souvenirs.

Queen conch eggs.
Photo: Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution's Aquaculture Division

Bed of conch in the Tropical Atlantic Ocean in 1987.
Photo: G.Wenz courtesy U.S. National Undersea Research Program, Caribbean Marine Research Center

Conch rests in a bed of seagrass in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Photo: Heather Dine courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Conchs are herbivores that graze shallow marine habitats for algae. Conchs may live up to seven years and grow to more than a foot long. Strombus gigas is found in warm, tropical waters (70-80 F) in the Caribbean Sea.