The Buccinidae is a diverse family of snails (gastropods) also known as the whelks (although the term “whelk” is often not used very specifically, beware). This family comprises about 1500 species, distributed world-wide. Most are marine, where they occur in a wide range of habitats, from shallow waters to abyssal, in polar to tropical longitudes.
Buccinids range from about 1-30 cm in length. The larger species tend to live in colder, more temperate and deeper waters, whereas the smaller species are common in intertidal habitats. There are a small number of freshwater whelks, almost all of which belong to the Asian genus Clea (about 11 species). Buccinid shells are spindle shaped (fusiform) spirals, generally smooth, and have a large oval opening (aperture), often protected by an operculum. Because the operculum is made of protein it is typically yellow, brown or black in color (rather than white, as are calcified opercula in other families). Another distinguishing characteristic of the shell is a well-defined siphonal canal through with the animal protrudes the siphon – a tube made from the mantle wall for drawing in oxygenated water into the mantle cavity. Buccinid shells can be quite colorful, and sought after by collectors.
Buccinids are carnivorous; some hunt their prey and others scavenge. They have a wide, mostly invertebrate diet including urchins, worms, crustaceans and bivalves, although some also eat small fishes. Buccinids have strong chemosensory abilities. As water passes through their siphon into their mantle cavity, it flows through the osphradium, the bucchinid version of a nose. They can smell their prey up to several meters away. Buccinids also have a formidable proboscis, which can protrude up two times as long their body length. At the end of the proboscis, they have a “radula” which can have one or two teeth modified as harpoons for piercing or cutting prey. In other types, the radular teeth are modified for drilling through calcarious shells of bivalves or barnacles. Typically they also apply shell-softening chelating chemicals secreted from a gland in the foot, to make a clean hole in the shell big enough to pass their proboscis and buccal (mouth) tube through to eat the soft tissues.
The buccinid species Buccinum undatum (the Common Whelk) is eaten widely, especially in Europe and Asia. There is some concern about conducting research to properly regulating this new fishing industry in Maine to properly manage the species as its popularity grows. (Department of Marine Resources. http://www.maine.gov/dmr/rm/whelks.html)