Field of Science

Slippers on the Coast

The 'limpet' form is something that has evolved numerous times among gastropods, as various lineages of marine snail converted to a more or less unwhorled shell and low profile. In many cases, the evolution of the limpet form is also associated with high energy environments, the ability to nestle against rocks helping the gastropod maintain its grip against the surge of the waves. In the modern world, the most diverse and familiar lineage of limpets is that including the common limpets of the genus Patella and their relatives, but there also many independent lineages to be found. One of these is the slipper limpets of the genus Crepidula.

Various views of shell of Crepidula onyx, copyright H. Zell.

Slipper limpets get their vernacular name from the shape of their shell, whose more or less oval shape together with a jutting internal horizontal shelf (the septum) at one end gives the overall impression of a carpet slipper. About forty species (including fossils) of Crepidula are currently recognised worldwide. Species recognition has historically been difficult owing to their simple form and tendency to vary according to the environment in which they mature, but Hoagland (1977) identified a number of key distinguishing features such as disposition and shape of the muscle scars, features of the septum, and conformation of the apical beak of the shell. In contrast to the grazing common limpets, slipper limpets are filter feeders using their gill to capture micro-algae from the water column. They are protandric hermaphrodites, beginning their life as males but maturing into females as they grow. Eggs are brooded under the shell when first produced; in some species, the eggs are subsequently released to hatch into planktonic larvae whereas other species produce fewer eggs but retain them until the young have developed to the crawling stage. For instance, two species found on the east coast of North America that are very similar in adult appearance and have been confused historically differ in that Crepidula ustulatulina, found around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, produces free-living larvae whereas the more northerly C. convexa does not.

Mating stack of Crepidula fornicata, copyright Dendroica cerulea.

The most renowned species of slipper limpet is the northern Atlantic Crepidula fornicata. This species was originally native to the eastern coast of North America but was accidentally imported to Europe in the late 1800s in association with oysters being transported as stock for farming (Blanchard 1997). In the subsequent years, C. fornicata has become increasingly widespread on the shores of Europe, and is often a significant fouling pest for oyster farms. It has also been introduced to even further flung locations such as Japan and Washington State. Crepidula fornicata is famed for its habit of forming high mating stacks with several smaller males living permanently on the dorsal surface of larger females. If the female of a stack dies, the largest male may develop into a female. Not all Crepidula species form such stacks: in some, just two or three individuals may form a temporary cluster when mating.

Historically, Crepidula has been distinguished from other genera in the limpet family Calyptraeidae by their posterior shell apex and flat septum (other calyptraeid genera may have a cone-shaped shell and/or cup-shaped septum). However, a molecular analysis of the family by Collin (2003) found that species of Crepidula sensu Hoagland (1977) did not form a single clade within Calyptraeidae, and the genus' prior members are now divided between at least four genera. While these genera may be distinguishable using features of the soft anatomy, they are almost indistinguishable from the shells alone.


Blanchard, M. 1997. Spread of the slipper limpet Crepidula fornicata (L. 1758) in Europe. Current state and consequences. Scientia Marina 61 (Suppl. 2): 109–118.

Collin, R. 2003. Phylogenetic relationship among calyptraeid gastropods and their implications for the biogeography of marine speciation. Systematic Biology 52 (5): 618–640.

Hoagland, K. E. 1977. Systematic review of fossil and recent Crepidula and discussion of evolution of the Calyptraeidae. Malacologia 16 (2): 353–420.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know that about the name, "slipper snail". It makes sense.
    I see an occasional group of them here on Vancouver Island, unidentified as to species. Mostly, though, I find fragments of shells with the septum still mostly intact.


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