Triton’s trumpet shell has new calling
Astrid from the Netherlands e-mailed me that she recently received a 20-inch-long triton's trumpet shell from a retired musician.
"I plan to use it in circle rituals," she writes, "and I will be treating the shell with the respect it deserves. Can you please tell me more about the life of a triton's trumpet snail?"
She added that she would like to "teach others about the beautiful animal that lived in this shell. How old was it when it died?"
It's refreshing to hear from someone with a large shell who appreciates the snail that made it. And in triton's trumpets, there's a lot to admire.
The snail's name comes from Triton, a Greek god depicted as a merman. When Triton blew his shell trumpet, the seas calmed.
How long these snails live is not known.
Sexual maturity in marine snails occurs from 6 months to 2 years, but slow growth continues. One kind of limpet lives for 5 to 16 years, a particular periwinkle lives 4 to 10 years and most nudibranchs live about one year.
Large snail species like the triton's trumpet might not reach their maximum size for many years, but how many depends on food supplies and water conditions.
My textbooks say only that triton's trumpet snails are "long lived," but give no range. Since 20 inches is the longest the shells get, this snail was likely a senior citizen.
At night, triton's trumpets prey on starfish, including the coral-eating crown-of-thorns, and the occasional slate pencil urchin.
When a triton's trumpet catches the scent of a prey, it extends from its shell and walks with speed (for a snail) toward the prey. The snail holds the starfish with its powerful foot and uses its rough, tonguelike organ called a radula to rub a hole in the star's skin.
At the same time, the snail's salivary glands excrete a paralyzing agent and sulfuric acid. Once the triton breaks through the starfish's tough exterior, the animal becomes paralyzed, and the triton eats at its leisure.
Triton's trumpets base themselves around volcanic rock and coral, and tend to stay close to home. In Hawaii these snails are usually found in water 9 to 75 feet deep, but sometimes they live in shallower water along surf-beaten coasts.
Residing where divers can get to them is the triton's Achilles heel. These snails are now rare in Hawaii and elsewhere due to trophy hunting. We can help them by not buying their shells.
For eons, people have used these shells for horns by making a hole in the narrow end and blowing into the wide end. Ancient Hawaiians used tritons to open ceremonies.
"You can be sure I am taking good care of him/her," Astrid wrote. "When I received Triton he was very dirty. Smelled awful like cigarettes, yuk. ... So I gave him 3 baths with sea salt and after that a nice rub with some almond oil ... the shell looks lovely now."
I wondered about Astrid's intended use of her shell and looked up "circle ritual." It's the casting of a magic circle by those who practice ritual magic, particularly Wicca.
"Yes, I'm a witch," Astrid confirmed in a cheery e-mail when I asked. "In circles, I call on the elements ... and Triton will sort of 'underline' my call."
The shell also has another calling. Besides helping summon earth, air, fire and water, this triton will be an ambassador for its species.