information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

Common whelk (Buccinum undatum)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.



A large whelk up to 10 cm high and 6 cm wide. The shell has 7-8 whorls with spiral ridges. The shell is yellowish brown with irregular light and dark spiral areas. The aperture is broadly oval tapering to a point with a short wide siphonal canal leading from the base of aperture.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Common off all British coasts.

Global distribution

Distributed from Iceland and Norway to Bay of Biscay and throughout the North Atlantic.


Occasionally intertidal but mainly subtidal down to 1200 m. Found on muddy sand, gravel and also rock. Sometimes present in brackish waters.

Depth range

From low water to 1200m

Identifying features

  • Stout shell up to 10 cm in height.
  • 7-8 whorls last whorl 70% of height.
  • Broadly oval aperture.

Additional information

There is a significant fishery, which uses traps, for common whelks. The majority of the whelks are exported to the far east. Masses of lentil shaped eggs are often found attached to subtidal rocks, stones or shells. Empty egg masses, known as 'sea wash balls', are often found on the strandline and are sometimes mistaken for sponges. Buccinum undatum may be confused with the red whelk Neptunea antiqua. Neptunea antiqua does not have the coarse ribbing of Buccinum undatum and is not edible.

Listed by

- none -

Further information sources

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  1. Bergmann, M., Beare, D.J. & Moore, P.G., 2001. Damage sustained by epibentic invertebrates discarded in the Nephrops fishery of the Clyde Sea area, Scotland. Journal of Sea Research, 45, 105-118.

  2. Bradshaw, C., Veale, L.O., Hill, A.S. & Brand, A.R., 2002. The role of scallop-dredge disturbance in long-term changes in Irish Sea benthic communities: a re-analysis of an historical dataset. Journal of Sea Research, 47, 161-184.

  3. Bruce, J.R., Colman, J.S. & Jones, N.S., 1963. Marine fauna of the Isle of Man. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

  4. Cadée, G.C., Boon, J.P., Fischer, C.V., Mensink, B.P. & Ten Hallers-Tjabbes, C.C., 1995. Why the whelk (Buccinum undatum) has become extinct in the Dutch Wadden Sea. Netherlands Journal of Sea Research, 34, 337-339.

  5. Evans, P.L., Kaiser, M.J. & Hughes, R.N., 1996a. Behaviour and energetics of whelks, Buccinum undatum (L.), feeding on animals killed by beam trawling. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 197, 51-62.

  6. Fahy, E., Masterson, E., Swords, D. & Forrest, N., 2000. A second assessment of the whelk fishery Buccinum undatum in the southwest Irish Sea with particular reference to its history of management by size limits. Irish Fisheries Investigations, 6, 67pp.

  7. Fish, J.D. & Fish, S., 1996. A student's guide to the seashore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  8. Graham, A., 1988. Molluscs: prosobranchs and pyramellid gastropods (2nd ed.). Leiden: E.J. Brill/Dr W. Backhuys. [Synopses of the British Fauna No. 2]

  9. Hayward, P., Nelson-Smith, T. & Shields, C. 1996. Collins pocket guide. Sea shore of Britain and northern Europe. London: HarperCollins.

  10. Hayward, P.J. & Ryland, J.S. (ed.) 1995b. Handbook of the marine fauna of North-West Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  11. JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee), 1999. Marine Environment Resource Mapping And Information Database (MERMAID): Marine Nature Conservation Review Survey Database. [on-line]

  12. Kaiser, M.J., Ramsay, K., Richardson, C.A., Spence, F.E. & Brand, A.R., 2000. Chronic fishing disturbance has changed shelf sea benthic community structure. Journal of Animal Ecology, 69, 494-503.

  13. Kideys, A.E., Nash, R.D.M. & Nartnoll, R.G., 1993. Reproductive cycle and energetic cost of reproduction of the neogastropod Buccinum undatum in the Irish Sea. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 73, 391-403.

  14. Mackie, A.S.Y., Oliver, P.G. & Rees, E.I.S., 1995. Benthic biodiversity in the southern Irish Sea. Studies in Marine Biodiversity and Systematics from the National Museum of Wales. BIOMOR Reports, no. 1.

  15. Mensink, B.P., Fischer, C.V., Cadée, G.C., Fonds, M., Ten Hallers-Tjabbes, C.C. & Boon, J.P., 2000. Shell damage and mortality in the common whelk Buccinum undatum caused by beam trawl fishery. Journal of Sea Research, 43, 53-64.

  16. Morel, G.M. & Bossy, S.F., 2004. Assessment of the whelk (Buccinum undatum L.) population around the Island of Jersey, Channel Isles. Fisheries Research, 68, 283-291.

  17. Picton, B.E. & Costello, M.J., 1998. BioMar biotope viewer: a guide to marine habitats, fauna and flora of Britain and Ireland. [CD-ROM] Environmental Sciences Unit, Trinity College, Dublin.

  18. Ramsay, K., Kaiser, M.J. & Hughes, R.N. 1998. The responses of benthic scavengers to fishing disturbance by towed gears in different habitats. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 224, 73-89.

  19. Rumohr, H. & Kujawski, T., 2000. The impact of trawl fishery on the epifauna of the southern North Sea. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 57, 1389-1394.

  20. Seaward, D.R., 1982. Sea area atlas of the marine molluscs of Britain and Ireland. Peterborough: Nature Conservancy Council.

  21. Valentinsson, D., 2002. Reproductive cycle and maternal effects on offspring size and number in the neogastropod Buccinum undatum (L.). Marine Biology, 140, 1139-147.


This review can be cited as:

Ager, O.E.D. 2008. Buccinum undatum Common whelk. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 22-09-2018]. Available from:

Last Updated: 29/05/2008