He-She Sea Shells on the Sea Shore

I’ve been thinking about hermaphrodites lately, as an artist friend has been sharing some tales of his exploits as a boy and a young man in the Dominican Republic. He was telling me one night about a certain village by a lake where there lived a lot of albino hermaphrodites. They were very sensual and sweet and fell in love easily. For a quarter they would show you their fantastic white orchids.

Sounds like a bargain to me. In this village all a quarter buys you is seven minutes on a parking meter…

Medical researchers in the early 1970’s confirmed a rare form of pseudo-hermaphroditism in that Dominican village, meaning that baby boys didn’t get enough testosterone in the womb to fully develop as males. The condition was found in twenty-three extended families spanning four generations. The 1997 documentary Guevote followed the lives of Chi-Chi and Bonny, two pseudo-hermaphrodites and the way in which their families, partners, and others responded to them.

You must be wondering where all this talk about hermaphrodites is leading. Well, I’m going to tell you a story about hermaphrodites in Rehoboth. Don’t gasp. Just take a walk on the beach after a storm and I guarantee you’ll see one or two. You might call them conchs. But, if you want to be precise, please refer to them as knobbed whelks.

The knobbed whelk – a marine mollusk — lives in tidal estuaries and shallow waters off the East Coast from Massachusetts to northern Florida. They’re recognizable by the knobs on the crown of their spire and a light gray to tan shell, often with brown and white streaks. The shell interiors can range from pale yellow to orange to dark red. New Jersey and Georgia have both chosen the knobbed whelk as their state seashell.

Whelks are protandric hermaphrodites, meaning they function first as males when young, then change into females as they grow and age. I swear I’ve seen this same phenomenon in Ft. Lauderdale, but they call it the “golden girl” syndrome. It explains why there’s a preponderance of females among the older and larger-sized whelk population.

Protandric hermaphroditism is not uncommon among plants and invertebrates. Many mollusks change sexes, as do some species of sponges, shrimp, and freshwater crayfish. Snook fish are protandric hermaphrodites. Some orchids and watermelons are too.

What do you think the Georgia state legislature would do if it knew it’d adopted a hermaphrodite as a state seashell?

The very best place around here to see live knobbed whelks is out on the Cape Henlopen sand bar at low tide. They can grow as large as 9.5 inches. The shell grows over time as the whelk secretes a calcium deposit to the leading edge near the opening, causing the shell to become longer and wider to better accommodate the growing animal inside.

They reproduce in the spring and fall. Eggs are laid in protective capsules joined to form a chain of egg cases commonly called a “mermaid’s necklace.” Each capsule contains almost 100 eggs and most necklaces have 40-160 capsules. Sometimes you can find dried out necklaces washed up on the beach too.

You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but knobbed whelks are predators and its said they have a keen sense of smell. Clams are their favorite food. Whelks use their shell to open up the clam and then insert their long proboscis. They eat out the clam using a rough tongue-like organ that has thousands of tiny tooth-like protrusions.

The knobbed whelk doesn’t move around much. When it does its because a mucous gland opens onto the surface of a foot. This secretes a slime trail over which the animal glides. Waves of fine muscular contractions that sweep from the anterior to the posterior of the foot provide the power for locomotion. The foot also acts like a trap door. The whelk can pull shut to close off the mouth of its shell, thus protecting its soft body parts, which are safely inside. Weather temperatures and conditions dictate migration to and from offshore waters. During periods of winter storms, whelks like to burrow into the ocean bottom and can remain dormant for extended periods of time.

Man has used seashells throughout history as symbols of love, wealth, and ornamentation. I show the lowly mollusk some higher being by using it as decoration throughout my cottage. The color of the knobbed whelk works especially well with my décor and it looks great atop a pile of books, in bookcases, and on tables. I use small ones as finials on my lamps.

For close to 30 million years, knobbed whelks have lived peacefully off the coast. But with every passing day, they’re becoming more and more scarce due to over-fishing. Delaware dredges up an enormous amount of whelks each year to satisfy a growing international market. So, if you want to admire this wild hermaphrodite, one of nature’s truly special creatures, I suggest you don’t wait too long.


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