Field of Science

Peering through a Limpet's Keyhole

Keyhole limpet Fissurella latimarginata, copyright Jan Maximiliano.

In an earlier post, I introduced you to the slit limpets, conical- or flat-shelled gastropods in the family Fissurellidae that possess a longitudinal slit at the front of their shells in order to help achieve the imposrtant condition of having one's anus as far away from one's mouth as possible. The image above shows another member of the same family, but this time known as a keyhole limpet. In the keyhole limpets of the genus Fissurella, the slit has been closed off and modified into a rounded opening bound by a callus at the shell's apex. The apex is located sub-centrally on the shell which is also radially ornamented (Simone 2008). Other interesting features of the genus include a tendency for the radula to be asymmetrical with the three- or four-cusped lateral teeth larger on one side than the other. Two related genera, Amblychilepas and Macroschisma, differ primarily in having larger soft bodies that cannot be retracted under the shell whereas Fissurella species are able to seal themselves in (Aktipis et al. 2011).

Fissurella volcano, copyright Jerry Kirkhart.

Various Fissurella species are found around the world. They have been divided between several subgenera, but Fissurella taxonomy is complicated by the fact that the overall shape of the shell is strongly affected by the nature of the substrate each individual makes its home. Truly reliable identification of distinct taxa requires detailed knowledge of the soft anatomy which is apparently still little-known for many species. According to Simone (2008), there is a correlation between shell height and energy level of each species' preferred habitat: species found in higher-energy environments (such as shorelines subject to heavy surf) tend to have higher shells (which surprises me because, if you'd asked me to guess, I might have expected the opposite).

As far as humans are concerned, though, most keyhole limpets have fairly little economic impact. Larger species, which can get up to about ten centimetres in size (many are much smaller), are harvested for food around the coast of South America. I also came across a reference to a Fissurella species being regarded as a pest in abalone aquaculture, as both species are algae-grazers and compete for food. Other than that, one imagines that their pre-perforated shells could be very useful for children wanting to make a (possibly somewhat malodorous) necklace as a souvenir of a trip to the beach.


Aktipis, S. W., E. Boehm & G. Giribet. 2010. Another step towards understanding the slit-limpets (Fissurellidae, Fissurelloidea, Vetigastropoda, Gastropoda): a combined five-gene molecular phylogeny. Zoologica Scripta 40: 238–259.

Simone, L. R. L. 2008. A new species of Fissurella from São Pedro e São Paulo Archipelago, Brazil (Vetigastropoda, Fissurellidae). Veliger 50 (4): 292–304.


  1. Well, I've never found myself wondering what a bivalve's faeces consist of before, or what they smell like.

    1. If you've ever found yourself eating bivalves, you've had the opportunity to find out. I don't know of anyone who bothers to remove the hindgut from a mussel before eating it.

    2. I've eaten mussels and oysters, but it didn't occur to me to try and divide up the smell components by anatomical origin.


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