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The warm shallow waters of the Bahamas Banks are ideal for the Conch. Here  they can graze on the acres of gently waving sea grass. However, the Conch was soon discovered to be a rich source of protein and has been providing food for the natives of these islands since the earliest Lucayans found their way to the islands. As well as providing food, the big heavy shells of the animal was ideal for fashioning ornaments, jewelry and even tools. The remains of ancient Conch shells have been found wherever Indian settlements have been discovered.

Many native dishes feature the Conch. Conch chowder is a rich meaty soup with tomatoes and herbs, cracked Conch is a tenderized (by hammering) fried conch, while Conch salad is a delicious mixture of chopped raw conch, onions, peppers and lime juice. Many Bahamians believe that conch gives them a 'strong back' - a sort of molluscan viagra.

In the past, New Providence has experienced an epidemic of food poisoning from the Conch sold at Potter's Cay, Arawak Cay and Fort Montagu. The disease causing organism has been identified as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a salt water  gram- negative bacterium naturally and commonly found in warm marine and estuarine environments. In the States, infection is commonly caused by eating raw Oysters. 

The Queen or Pink Conch (Strombus gigas) is a gastropod mollusc - a big sea snail. It begins life as a tiny egg, one of thousands laid by the female between March and September as part of an egg mass containing half a million eggs or more. The Conch larva - called a veliger, hatches after three to five days and swims up into the water to become part of the  plankton.

Conch eggsConch eggs are laid in a string of jelly which is moved from side to side to form a firm egg mass 4 to 6 inches long. The eggs hatch in 3-5 days Conch egg mass

The Conch egg mass is laid in the sand

The Conch veliger has two rounded lobes fringed with tiny hairs which beat beat back and forth. They help to move the larva through the water and create a water current sending tiny food particles in towards the mouth.  Conch veligerThe veliger stands little chance of survival - which is why the Conch lays so many eggs.

 In the plankton, the eggs are totally at the mercy of the ocean's currents. In the three weeks that the veliger exists, many of them will become food for larger filter feeding reef organisms, corals, sponges, crinoids and even some other molluscs!

Those that are not eaten will only survive if at the end of the three weeks, they fall to the seafloor in shallow water. Many will fall into the ocean depths where they will find no food. Some however, will descend into beds of Sea grass where they stand at least a small chance of survival.

Descent to the sea floor is not necessarily immediate. It has been shown that the Conch larvae must 'sample' the correct food organisms in the water before it starts to descend. Chemicals produced by specific bottom living micro-organisms known as diatoms will trigger the Conch's metamorphosis, providing a 'settlement cue' . This is clearly a valuable survival strategy, as it ensures that the Conch will descend into the correct environment for survival.

On the sea bed, the veliger goes through a period of metamorphosis or change in which the lobes disappear and it develops a long snout and a foot with a claw. It buries itself in the sand at this stage where it lives for about a year on very small algae.

When the Conch develops its shell, it is rounded without the characteristic lip of the mature Conch.young 'roller' Conch. It takes almost another three years before the Conch reaches its full mature size. It is known at this stage as a 'roller', as it will roll about in the surf unlike a mature Conch which is stabilised by its lip. At seven months of age, the roller's shell is some four centimeters long. 

It takes almost another three years before the Conch reaches its full mature size. At this stage it is growing its lip - the wide shell edge that protects the animal's body as it 'hops' about in the Sea grass. At first the edge of the lip is thin and fragile, but it gradually thickens over the next few years. An old Conch with a thick lip may be six or seven years old. By this time it will have acquired a variety of hitch hikers on its shell, Bryozoans, algae, and even juvenile corals.

Unlike many snails, the Conch is either male or female. Without seeing the body of the Conch out of its shell, it is almost impossible to tell the sex of an animal. If the body is removed from the shell, the male is seen to have a small 'arm' extending from above the right eye, while the female has a groove extending from the base of the foot right up into the shell.

The Conch can also produce pearls, although much more rarely than Oysters. The Conch pearls are much more variable in both shape and colour. The outside of the shell is covered by a horny brown periostracum - which will eventually peel off after a Conch shell has been dead and laying about in the sun. The inside of the shell however, is covered with a thin layer of crystalline calcium carbonate known as nacre. This is the same substance with which an Oyster coats an irritant grain of sand to form a pearl. The Conch can also produce pearls, although much more rarely than Oysters. The Conch pearls are much more variable in both shape and colour. 

Conchs mate in the summer, with large numbers gathering together. The male sits just behind the female and extends its 'arm' up underneath the female's shell to deposit sperm close to the eggs. Following mating, the egg mass is left on the sand.

In many parts of the Caribbean, the Conch's habitat is limited by relatively small areas of shallow water. In such places the Conch have been over-fished and become almost a delicacy. I was astonished by the price of Conch in Saint Lucia when I ordered a meal at a 'native' restaurant there. 

Even in the Bahamas, the Conch is no longer found in any numbers close to large centres of population. For further exploration of the over-fishing theme, go to my page 'Harvesting Nature'.

The Conch is a wonderful resource, but one which could go the way of far too many of Mankind's food resources with continued over harvesting. It would be tragic for the Conch to reach 'endangered species' status. Let us hope that with wise and sensible management of the Conch and its environment,  it never will.