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Collecting seashells on the beaches of Sanibel, Captiva and the world

Difference Between Lightning, Pear, Knobbed, Channeled Whelks

4 different similar whelks

I am obsessed with shells. I love to hunt for shells, collect different species of shells, travel for shells, learn about shells and research shells. So I have been like a pit bull with a bone ever since Shellabaloo 3 when an unusual shell showed up at our Shell ‘N Tell.

knobbed whelk sanibel foreign shell

Was is really a right-handed LIGHTNING WHELK? Or was it a KNOBBED WHELK (Busycon carica) just displaced????? LIGHTNING WHELKS are the only left handed shell in Florida so to find a right-handed would be so cool. I am so excitable when I see a “local” shell (Southwest Florida) I haven’t seen before so my mind starts racing. After I wrote the post Seashells And Beach Bling at Shellabaloo 3 Shell ‘N Tell, I just had to look into it further about that WHELK Gregg found. Something wasn’t sitting right with me. Somehting else looked a little different about that whelk other than just the opening…. was it really from this area? Hmmmm.  Then I got an email from another Shellabalooer, Marie, who said after she was sorting through her shells when she got home, she realized she found one of those right-handed whelks too. What??? What are the odds???

marie photo of whelks

OMG. It was sitting on her tray at the Shell ‘N Tell and I didn’t even see it! Here’s the photo I put on the blog post. Can you see it now? LOL

marie shellabaloo 3 shell n tell sanibel

So I started racing through my shell collection of LIGHTNING WHELKS. Have I found a RIGHT-HANDED LIGHTNING WHELK before and just didn’t realize it?

lightning welks welk left handed

Well, No. I didn’t find one in our collection. Dang it!

While we visited the Baily-Matthews Shell Museum, Dr. Leal said something like “one in 10,000 LIGHTNING WHELKS are right-handed” … or something like that. Sorry if I got that number wrong but all I know is that he said it was a very rare find.   So then…

While I was visiting my mom and family in Virginia Beach earlier this month, I helped my mom organize some her shells from her closet she had stacked up in shoe boxes.  Aha! This looks like Gregg’s right-handed shell. These were a few shells that were collected years ago from the Outer Banks of North Carolina (or they could have been found after a Nor-Easter on Virginia Beach- we cant recall) that looked just like his shell. They are KNOBBED WHELKS !!

knobbed whelks atlantic ocean

Now that I had one in my hand, I knew that this was the same shell that Gregg and Marie found here on our beaches of Sanibel and Captiva. So they didn’t find rare right handed LIGHTNING WHELKS after all, they found KNOBBED WHELKS like these.

east coast shells knobbed whelkseast coast shells knobbed whelks

After getting back home (with a few of my mom’s shells- heehee), I lined up all of the WHELKS. Now you can see the differences of all of the WHELKS too. Unfortunately, I don’t have a right-handed LIGHTNING WHELK to put in the line-up but you can see the rest of them.

From left to right- LIGHTNING WHELK (Sanibel), PEAR WHELK (Sanibel), KNOBBED WHELK (Outer Banks, North Carolina – OBX), CHANNELED WHELK (OBX).

4 different similar whelks

differences whelks aperture lightning pear knobbed channeled

You can see by the shape of the spire, and the “tail” the differences are from the LIGHTNING WHELK (left) and  KNOBBED WHELK (right)

compare lightning whelk to knobbed welk

This view gives you lots of differences…especially since the LIGHTNING’s aperture opens on the left.

difference lightning whelk knobbed whelk

Since the CHANNELED WHELK (left) and PEAR WHELK (right) look so similar, I thought I’d show the different views here as well…

channeled whelk pear whelk

Remember, we don’t have CHANNELED WHELKS (Busycon canaliculatum) here on the southwest coast of Florida either but we do have the PEAR WHELKS.

difference channeled whelk pear welk

This is what Dr Leal and I concluded from the mystery of these found KNOBBED WHELKS (not right handed lightning whelks) on Sanibel/Captiva. People return shells to the sea- no matter where they found them. I have heard countless times (really, I hear this sooooo often!) that people will find a box of shells they collected from various places over the years but they want to get rid of them. They decide to take them back to the beach that is convenient. OR… they buy shells to scatter on the beach for a party, wedding or so their kids will have different shells to find. Then they leave them and the high tide takes them away and the end up washing back in like they were from the gulf. It happens. That’s why people find so many “foreign” shells here on Sanibel. So for our group to find TWO right handed lightning whelks in one week, errrrr….. even though we find the BEST beaches for our Shellabaloo shellers while they are here …. I think we found somebody’s old shells they collected from the Atlantic Ocean that they scattered on Sanibel.

whelk spire lightning pear knobbed chenneled

So know we know the differences between a LIGHTNING, PEAR, KNOBBED and CHANNELED WHELK!

4 different similar whelks

Join us for the next Shellabaloo January 6-9, 2014 or some of our other shelling adventures by


shelling adventures trips by pam



  1. Kudos Gorgeous,

    Congrats! on the exemplary whelk presentation Pam. The shell plates provide an excellent photographic essay.


  2. Well welded whelks Pam! Nice post!

    Steve Rosenthal and I found a nice big live knobbed whelk in the back bay at Jones Beach, Long Island, last week, and it was in the process of eating a live quahog! Cool to see!

    So… we may be pretty far north here in NY and we don’t have nearly so many pretty kinds of colored shells as Sanibel has, but we do at least have a couple of different kinds of really big whelks (we also have the channeled whelk) and really gigantic surf clams too. :)

    • Yep! I have collected knobbed and channeled whelks at Jones beach!

  3. Pam, I’ve recently collected lots of knobbed whelks from SC beaches and they come in an amazing assortment of shapes and colors. First I might add that they are called Keiner’s whelks if they have a very prominent bulge in the middle portion of the shell and very prominent spines. That’s what we find most in SC. The fresh ones will sometimes have a VERY orange and lustrous interior and display best with the aperture side up. There are other shells on SC beaches, most of which are also found at Sanibel (lettered olive, lightning whelk, apple murex, atlantic moon, etc.). And large channeled whelks can be found as well, but much less common than the Keiner’s whelk. All in all, Sanibel has much better shelling, but a nice collection of fresh Keiner’s whleks can be had in SC if you do a little research on the best collecting beaches. PS – Live collecting is allowed in some places but I never do that. Much more challenging to find the fresh recently vacated (eaten) ones that haven’t yet been claimed by a hermit.

    • Phil, thank you for such great info! I have some of the “Keiners” whelks (with the bigger knobs) but they look so different (from the right handed whelk) I didn’t want to confuse the photos. But now I wish I had added them! Maybe I’ll add it later….

  4. Pam, a very similar species is the Keiner’s whelk also found on the east coast. The best ones have a very bright lustrous orange interior and are great for display. A wide variety of really cool shapes too. Phil

  5. Wow !…That was an awesome tutorial and assessment.
    Thank you !…love this blog !

  6. That really disturbs me that anyone would “seed” a beach with shells. I personally love to FIND my shells and I don’t like buying or being given shells. I want to know that someone didn’t just drop off my finds on a beach but rather mother nature deposited them there herself. I didn’t find any good shells while visiting Panama City Beach last week but I sure am glad no one seeded the beach with shells and I found those. Thanks for the informative article Pam. Love your website!

    • Alesha, just so it eases your mind… this doesnt happen every day that we find “foreign” shells. Clark and I have probably only found a handful of “displaced” shells in all of the years we have been shelling but I have seen more from other people who either post them on the iLoveShelling facebook page or people who show me the shell when I see them on the beach. I honestly dont think it is done intentionally to “seed” the beach for kicks. Remember that this is a resort area so I don’t think people realize that there so many other people who study shells and know each different shell that washes up. To them, they think that a shell is a just shell… so if they bought a shell at the store for decoration for a party, it wont matter if they leave it on the beach filled with other shells. Thats just my humble opinion!

      • I once found a shell I couldn’t identify on Cayo Costa. Took it to the shell museum…turned out it was a land snail that had traveled across the Gulf from Mexico! I was told it was unusual, but not unheard of. Fun! So, some foreign shells can be gifts from Mother Nature!

        • Oh heck yaya! After storms we find rare gifts that are all mother nature’ doing. Love it!

  7. Really great post Pam!! Thanks!!

  8. I have found some shells (mainly lightning whelks) that had been thrown on the beach. I knew because the edges had been cut to smooth them out. I gave them away. Any shells I put back on the beach were from that area. I have bought some shells (lions paw)), but I don’t buy any with cut edges. So I guess a rare shell may not be home grown.

  9. Great presentation Pam. Now can you come to my house & help me sort through mine?? Heehee

    Mary Ann
    East Granby CT
    Ps….. Ill take ya to Newport RI, Maine etc

    • And of course the. Cape! Come to New England Pam :)

      • Oh yes, lisa, the cape was a given!!!!

        Mary Ann

  10. Thanks for checking out our “right handed” whelks. Now too I am noticing a twist in the tail of our false righties that does not appear in a true lightning, they are almost straight. Great info, and it was fun while it lasted. Probably good that Greg took his home…hope he is reading too. So glad you are back on the beach. Good thoughts coming your way always.

  11. Whelks in ANY form are my most favorite shell!!!! I love them!! Unfortunately, I have not found many on my beach lately. :-(

  12. Great presentation and lesson on all the whelks, Pam. I will have to look through all of mine to see if I have ever found a right handed lightning whelk also. A friend of mine and I are thinking seriously about doing Shellabaloo 4. It would be great to see Sanibel in the winter.

    • Oh Angela! Come back for Shellabaloo 4! I will help you find the rest of your pancake!! Lol I looooved out time together last month

  13. After Ike hit Galveston, my daughter and I went down to the beach from my home about 35 minutes north of there and saw the aftermath of the storm. The shelling was odd in that there were some shells that were native to that shore, but some were not. The ones that weren’t we decided must have come from a huge shell shop that had been built out into the surf and had been torn down by Ike. That was our “seeded” shells. Interesting, but a little sad, too. The shell shop is now back in business and better than ever though!

  14. Sinistral and dextral? “Left” (sinister) and “right” (dexter).
    You found a dexter LIGHTNING WHELK. Great find!

  15. OhmyGoodGracious! The first time I discovered this blog was in 2011 when I was looking for shells in SC. I found exactly one whole whelk. I just looked at it again…..and it’s a RIGHT HANDED WHELK! EEEK! Can I email you a picture?

    • CA, if u found it in SC, you probably found a knobbed whelk or a channeled whelk. Lots of whelks from South Carolina are right handed. Omigosh, I’m so sorry you guys, I think I have confused the issue of rare finds. Ack! It’s only the lightning whelk that is rarely found with the opening on the right side. All other whelks open to the right as I’ve shown in the photos above.

  16. Just to add to the complexity, I undertstand there are actually “right handed left handed” whelks, a freak just as a sinistral specimen of a normally right handed
    whelk is a freak. I have a “right handed left handed” whelk, and that it is so was confirmed by an eminent shell scientist and expert.

    • Omg. Ha! I guess there could be! We’d love to see a photo of that one too. Which typed of whelk is your “left handed right handed” whelk? Yep! It’s complex and oh so fun.

  17. While shelling at a rather remote beach south of Matamoros, Mexico, I found a shell that had “pear whelk” written inside of it. I don’t think Mother Nature wrote that in there….lol. Now you’ve got me curious, I’ll have to look at my whelk collection to see if I have any right-handed ones.

  18. I nominate Marie (Kansas) for “SANIBEL SEASHELL SLEUTH OF THE YEAR”…. because of her detective work, and discovery of that rare right-handed lightning whelk. This gave me a good excuse to search my own shellection. As Pam says, “Nuttin’ honey”, yet just learning more about shells made it even more exciting.

    Good sleuthing Marie !!
    Fine posting Pam !!
    Happy shelling everyone out on the beach :)

    • Charlotte in Tuscon, errrr….I may been a little confusing in this post. I just want to be sure you and everyone else knows that I didnt show any of these lightning whelks as a rare right handed lightning whelk. Marie’s was a knobbed whelk and Gregg’s was a knobbed whelk as well. Neither were lightning whelks. So sorry if I didnt make it clear! ack!

      • Whoops!! You were perfectly clear….
        Thanks for the clarification.

        • Wish I could claim that title…love it…but. At least we have had a great ” edshellication ” on whelks. Still will keep looking more closely. Thanks Pam

  19. I’ve been away from the computer lately due to caring for my Mom (she’s had some major surgery), but how interesting to get caught up. Thank you for the great information Pam. I always learn so much here.

    My thoughts are with you and Clark too on your loss of Smittie. My kitty was 25 when she passed and the loss was devastating. Time does help to heal so try to keep busy and spend time on the beach – so therapeutic. xo

  20. Pam,

    Thank-you for the great information in this post. I looked through my collection of lighting whelks and found a small right-handed one. I didn’t even know that I had something special, so thank-you for letting me know!

    Debi McBroom

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