Littorina lunata HC Lea 1845
Littorina sayi Reeve 1858
Littorina sulcata Lamarck 1822
The marsh periwinkle, Littorina irrorata,
is an abundant snail in the salt marshes of the western Atlantic.
The shell is elongate conic in shape, longer than it is wide
(Andrews 1994). Coloration of the shell is dull grayish white
with tiny dashes of reddish brown on the ridges of the spiral.
Eight to ten gradually increasing flat whorls comprise the shell,
with the body whorl measuring about half of the total height.
The aperture is oval with a sharp outer tip and regular grooves
on the inside edge.
Potentially Misidentified Species:
Many of the species of littorinids common
to the western Atlantic are found in the IRL, including: the
mangrove periwinkle, Littorina
angulifera; slender periwinkle, L. angustior;
lineolate periwinkle, L. lineolata; white-spot periwinkle,
L. meleagris; and the zebra periwinkle, L. ziczac.
All of these species share a similar shell shape and an intertidal
The mangrove periwinkle
attains a shell length of about 2.5 to 3.0 cm, and varies in
background color from bluish white, orange to dull yellow, reddish
brown to grayish brown (Andrews 1994). The shell is comprised
of 6 whorls, with the body whorl about half of the total height
of the snail. Darker dashes on the ribs of the shell are often
fused to form stripes on the body whorl. The early whorls around
the base bear regularly-spaced vertical white spots below the
The slender periwinkle
is relatively small, reaching a length of about 0.8 cm (Abbott
1974). The upper whorls of the shell are marked with 6-9 spiral
lines, the sides of the foot are mottled black and gray, and
the operculum is mostly round in shape.
The lineolate periwinkle
reaches a length of about 1.2 to 2.5 cm, has a gray background
color on the shell with oblique zigzag lines of dark brown,
and an apex of reddish brown (Andrews 1994). The shell is composed
of 6-8 gradually increasing whorls, with the body whorl spanning
more than half of the total length, and the suture between whorls
is well marked. The pear-shaped aperture has a sharp, thin outer
lip meeting the body whorl at an acute angle. Shells of males
are smaller and more strongly sutured then females.
The white-spot periwinkle
is also small like the slender periwinkle, measuring about 0.8
cm in length (Abbott 1974). The shell has a pointed spire with
a thin periostracum or organic covering. The aperture is reddish
brown and the exterior of the shell is brown with large, irregular
white spots, often arranged in spiral roles.
The zebra periwinkle
has a shell length of about 1.3 cm, and is whitish with dark
brown or black wavy stripes (Andrews 1994). The aperture is
small and oval, and the operculum is chitinous. This species
is often confused with L. lineolata, but has a lighter
colored shell with a narrower apical angle than the lineolate
II. HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Regional Occurrence & Habitat
The marsh periwinkle ranges from New York
to Texas (Abbott & Morris 1995, Bequaert 1943), and shares
a similar distribution with the salt marsh cordgrass, Spartina
alterniflora (Hamilton 1978). Individuals are found above
the water line on and around vegetation throughout salt marsh
areas (Hutchens & Walters 2006), often on dead, upright
leaves of Spartina alterniflora (Crist & Banta
1983). Occasionally, populations are found on jetty rocks and
seawalls (Gosner 1978).
The distribution of L. irrorata
is mainly limited to salt marsh habitats of the IRL, mostly
confined to the northern areas of the lagoon. In south Florida,
including the southern areas of the IRL, L. irrorata
is largely replaced by the mangrove periwinkle, L. angulifera
III. LIFE HISTORY AND
Age, Size and Lifespan:
The maximum age of L. irrorata
is unknown, and the lifespan can vary with food availability
and environmental factors. The maximum reported shell length
for the marsh periwinkle is 3.2 cm (Kaplan 1988), but most individuals
are around 2.5 cm (Andrews 1994).
The marsh periwinkle can reach high densities
in the salt marshes of the east coast of North America. In many
areas, populations range between 15 and 66 individuals m-2
(Hutchens & Walters 2006, Schindler et al. 1994).
However, when left unchecked be predators, they may approach
densities over 2,600 snails m-2 (Hutchens & Walters
Reproductive strategies are quite diverse
within the Littorina genus. Some species release egg
masses from with larvae hatch, others attach egg masses to hard
substrata, and some brood their young until giving birth to
larvae or juvenile snails (Ruppert & Barnes 1994).
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
The large range and distribution of L.
irrorata throughout temperate to tropical latitudes suggests
the species has a wide thermal tolerance. Laboratory experiments
on the marsh periwinkle successfully exposed the snail to a
temperature range of 5 to 45 °C, although depressed respiration
rates suggested thermal stress at the extremities of this range
(Shirley et al. 1978). The ability of the marsh periwinkle
to attach to a surface via a mucous holdfast and withdraw completely
into its shell is likely a means of escaping extreme temperatures
and desiccation (Andrews 1994, Shirley et al. 1978).
The salinity tolerances of L. irrorata
are poorly documented, but most populations are found in low
salinity waters (Andrews 1994).
V. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
The marsh periwinkle is herbivorous, grazing
on algae, fungi and the marsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora
(Andrews 1994, Bärlocher & Newell 1994, Graça
et al. 2000, Gustafson et al. 2006, Hutchens
& Walters 2006, Silliman et al. 2004, Warren 1985).
Documented predators of L. irrorata
include: the squareback marsh crab, Armases
cinereum; Atlantic mud crab, Panopeus
herbstii; blue crab, Callinectes
sapidus; and the crown conch, Melongena
corona. (Buck et al. 2003, Schindler et
al. 1994, Silliman et al. 2004, Warren 1985).
Additional predators of the marsh periwinkle likely include
large fishes, birds and mammals.
No known obligate associations exist for
L. irrorata. However, marsh periwinkles are associated
with several organisms common to salt marshes and other intertidal
areas. For extensive lists of other species found in the habitats
in which L. irrorata occurs, please refer to the “Habitats
of the IRL” link at the left of this page.
VI. SPECIAL STATUS
High densities of marsh periwinkles have
the potential to drastically reduce coverage of their main food
source, the cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora. As a
top predator of L. irrorata, the Atlantic mud crab,
Panopeus herbstii, helps to keep snail populations
in check that could otherwise decimate salt marsh vegetation
(Silliman et al. 2004).
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and the West Indies, 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin Co.
Boston, MA. USA.
Andrews, J. 1994. A field guide to
shells of the Florida coast. Gulf Publishing Co. Houston,
Texas. USA. 182 pp.
Bärlocher, F & SY Newell. 1994.
Growth of the salt marsh periwinkle Littoraria irrorata
on fungal and cordgrass diets. Mar. Biol. 118: 109-114.
Bequaert, JC. 1943. The genus Littorina
in the western Atlantic. Johnsonia. 1: 1-27.
Crist, RW & WC Banta. 1983. Distribution
of the marsh periwinkle Littorina irrorata (Say) in
a Virginia salt marsh. Gulf Res. Rep. 7: 225-235.
Gosner, KL. 1978. A field guide to
the Atlantic seashore: Invertebrates and seaweeds of the Atlantic
coast from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Hatteras. Houghton
Mifflin Co. Boston, MA. USA. 329 pp.
Graça, MA, Newell, SY & RT
Kneib. 2000. Grazing rates of organic matter and living fungal
biomass of decaying Spartina alterniflora by three
species of salt-marsh invertebrates. Mar. Biol. 136:
Gustafson, DJ, Kilheffer, J & BR Silliman.
2006. Relative effects of Littoraria irrorata and Prokelisia
marginata on Spartina alterniflora. Estuar. Coasts.
Hamilton, PV. 1978. Intertidal distribution
and long-term movements of Littorina irrorata (Mollusca:
Gastropoda). Mar. Biol. 46: 49-58.
Hutchens, JJ, Jr. & K Walters. 2006.
Gastropod abundance and biomass relationships with salt marsh
vegetation within ocean-dominated South Carolina, USA estuaries.
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Kaplan, EH. 1988. A field guide to
southeastern and Caribbean seashores: Cape Hatteras to the Gulf
coast, Florida, and the Caribbean. Houghton Mifflin Co.
Boston, MA. USA. 425 pp.
Newell, SY & F Bärlocher. Removal
of fungal and total organic matter from decaying cordgrass leaves
by shredder snails. J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 171: 39-49.
Ruppert, EE & RD Barnes. Invertebrate
zoology, 6th edition. Saunders College Publishing. Orlando,
FL. USA. 1056 pp.
Ruppert, EE. & RS Fox. 1988. Seashore
animals of the Southeast: A guide to common shallow-water invertebrates
of the southeastern Atlantic coast. University of SC Press.
Columbia, SC. USA. 429 pp.
Schindler, DE, Johnson, BM, MacKay, NA,
Bouwes, N & JF Kitchell. 1994. Crab: snail size-structured
interactions and salt marsh predation gradients. Oecologia.
Shirley, TC, Denoux, GJ & WB Stickle.
1978. Seasonal respiration in the marsh periwinkle, Littorina
irrorata. Biol. Bull. 154: 322-334.
Silliman, BR & MD Bertness. 2002.
A trophic cascade regulates salt marsh primary production. Proc.
Nat. Acad. Sci. 99: 10500-10505.
Silliman, BR, Layman, CA, Geyer, K &
JC Zieman. 2004. Predation by the black-clawed mud crab, Panopeus
herbstii, in Mid-Atlantic salt marshes: further evidence
for top-down control of marsh grass production. Estuaries.
Silliman, BR, van de Koppel, Bertness,
MD, Stanton, LE & LA Mendelssohn. 2005. Drought, snails,
and large-scale die-off of southern US salt marshes. Science.
Warren, JH. 1985. Climbing as an avoidance
behavior in the salt marsh periwinkle, Littorina irrorata
(Say). J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 89: 11-28.
Report by: LH Sweat, Smithsonian Marine Station
at Fort Pierce
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Page last updated: 17 August 2009
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