If you’ve ever collected shells on the shore, you’ve probably homed in on the bright yellow, orange, white and even chequerboard colours of the flat periwinkle. Their shells look like a miniature version of the garden snail, but smaller, tougher and much, much brighter.
This time of year, when the seas are rough and the lower shore is hard to reach, I love to search among the seaweeds of the mid and upper shore. The flat periwinkles’ vivid colours shine out like jewels among the tangle of brown seaweeds.
On a damp day at my local beach, it doesn’t take me long to find dozens of them. They’re in no danger of drying out today so they’re busy grazing, tentacles waving from side to side, black eyes on the lookout for crabs and other predators.
Close-up they’re endearing little things, a herd of gentle grazers feeling their way through the swathes of seaweed. In this video you can see how they search out food with their tentacles. Watch them reaching out their proboscis mouth, pink radula pulsing as they rasp away at the seaweed.
In a patch of seaweed around five metres square, I find a huge variety of colours. These variations probably offer some protection from predators, as does the covering of microalgae on many flat periwinkles, which gives them a green colour.
Whatever the reasons for their varied colours, they make the flat periwinkle one of the most striking shells on the shore. (Note: If you collect shells, please always remember to check they’re empty before you take them home.)
It’s so easy to get close to these animals and watch them in action. Look out for them next time you’re at the beach.
About flat periwinkles…
There are two species of flat periwinkle, Littorina obtusata and Littorina mariae. In theory L. mariae has a flatter profile and is the smaller of the two with a thicker shell, but on the shore they vary and mix so it is hard to distinguish between the two species.
Generally, you find Littorina obtusata on the mid-upper shore, especially on egg wrack and Littorina mariae on the lower shore, especially on serrated wrack. The main difference is that L. obtusata tucks into the seaweeds it lives on, whereas L. mariae likes to graze on organisms that live on the its preferred seaweeds. Each one prefers to live on the seaweeds mainly found on its own zone of the shore.
The animals in these pictures are almost certainly Littorina obtusata given their location and diet. However, as far as I know the only way to be certain is to examine the animal’s penis – not something I intend to do. The Field Studies Council have a great paper on the habits and identification of the two flat periwinkle species (including penis shapes) here: http://fsj.field-studies-council.org/media/342551/vol7.3_202.pdf. Take a look if you’d like to know more.