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Living Sanibel: You see tulipshells in Sanibel (and Captiva)

By Staff | Dec 31, 2014

Tulip Shell

Although more difficult to find than some other gastropods, living tulips can still be located in the tidal flats of the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, as well as Tarpon Bay, the back side of Captiva, and along the shallows of the out islands. Look for them in areas of soft, muddy, and weedy bottoms. It is generally covered in algae growth and small barnacles, looking nothing like it does on display in a showcase. When moving, the tulip tends to look much like an oversized underwater snail crawling slowly along the bottom.

The tulip is a predatory gastropod, related to the horse conch, and is a carnivore. It feeds on other gastropods, including its relative, the banded tulip, as well as any number of bivalves such as clams, oysters, and scallops. The tulip wraps itself around a bivalve and methodically pries it open to feed upon the soft tissue inside. When picked up the tulip will immediately start to dislodge whatever water it has inside and close its trap door (the operculum), sealing itself completely inside its protective shell.

The tulip is found in water from a few inches to 30 feet in depth. This species has been known to grow to more than nine inches long, though it rarely reaches that size. It is preyed upon by grouper, octopus, and squid, and when inshore it is sometimes taken by wading birds such as egrets and herons.

Banded Tulip

Similar in many ways to its slightly larger cousin, the true tulip, the banded tulip is also found in the shallow mudflats and sandy bottoms of the back bay. It is a predatory gastropod, feeding on a variety of bivalves, as well as smaller tulips. All tulips are cannibalistic and will readily attack and eat members of their own species.

Unlike the oyster, the tulip is dioecious, meaning each is distinctly male or female. The female tulip’s egg capsules resemble flattened, V-shaped stemmed vases with frilly edges, clumped together in masses. They are generally attached to rocks or dead shells. The larvae emerge as crawling young.

Neither the banded nor true tulip population appears to be in trouble. Although both of these tulips are edible, their meat is tough and they have no real food value. The banded tulip is preyed upon by true tulips, wading birds, fish, and octopus.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.