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What is a Soft-Shell Clam?

By Steve R.
Updated May 21, 2024
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The soft-shell clam is a variety of mollusk that is native to bays and sounds along the entire mid-Atlantic. Also known as pisser clams, steamer clams, Ipswich clams, and long-neck clams, the sea creatures possess a thin and brittle shell that can be yellow, brown, or gray. Its shell grows to about four inches (10 cm) and the clam cannot completely shut its shell because of an elongated rubbery foot that protrudes from its shell.

Along the Eastern seaboard, the clams, known scientifically as mya arenaria, conceal themselves in the soft sediments in the shallow depths. Clams often live near one another other and unless they are physically moved, they are content to spend their entire life in one place. Living in shallow water allows the creature to be susceptible to pollution and industrial mishaps, including oil spills.

The mollusks have a life span of about 10 to 12 years and are able to reproduce after one year. The clams generally reproduce in the spring and in the fall. A female soft-shell clam can generate more than one million eggs. After being fertilized, eggs mature into larvae within 24 hours and develop shells in approximately three weeks.

As adults, the clams use their tiny openings, also known as siphons, to filter food and water. The mollusks feed on tiny microscopic particles, including algae and plankton. A variety of predators feed on the clams, including man, jellyfish, horseshoe crabs, and green crabs. Other birds and mammals that eat the long-neck clams include herring gulls, ducks, and raccoons.

Harvested as a popular delicacy, the edible soft-shell clam can be dug by hand during low tide. The creatures are harvested using a fork-like instrument that has long, thin points. A harvested clam has a life expectancy of more than a week. To be legally harvested, a long-neck clam must be at least 2 inches (about 5 cm). After being cleaned of sand, mud, or other residue, the clam can be prepared in various ways.

In New England, the clams are often served as steamers, where the mollusks are steamed whole. The clams can be eaten as an appetizer, often with a lobster dinner, or prepared as a main course. In clam bakes, the soft-shell clam can be dipped in the broth in which they were prepared and then dipped in melted butter. The clams can also be served baked or fried, or used as ingredients in chowder and soups.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a soft-shell clam and where can it be found?

A soft-shell clam, also known as Mya arenaria, is a bivalve mollusk with a thin, brittle shell. It thrives in the intertidal zones of the North Atlantic Ocean, from Canada to the southern United States. These clams are often found buried in the sand or mud, where they filter feed on plankton and detritus.

How do soft-shell clams differ from hard-shell clams?

Soft-shell clams have thinner, more brittle shells compared to hard-shell clams, which have thicker and sturdier shells. Soft-shells can be identified by their long siphons, used for feeding and breathing while buried. Hard-shell clams, on the other hand, live closer to the surface and have shorter siphons.

What is the significance of soft-shell clams in the ecosystem?

Soft-shell clams play a crucial role in coastal ecosystems by filtering water, which helps maintain water quality and clarity. They are also a key food source for various predators, including birds, fish, and humans, thus contributing to the biodiversity and food web dynamics of their habitats.

How are soft-shell clams harvested, and what are they used for?

Soft-shell clams are typically harvested using a process called "clam digging," where harvesters dig them out of tidal flats at low tide. They are a popular seafood delicacy, often steamed or used in dishes like clam chowder. Their meat is tender and sweet, making them a favorite among seafood enthusiasts.

What are the challenges facing soft-shell clam populations?

Soft-shell clam populations are threatened by overharvesting, habitat loss, and pollution. Additionally, they are susceptible to predation by invasive species such as the green crab. Climate change also poses a risk, as rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification can impact their survival and reproduction.

Are there any health benefits associated with consuming soft-shell clams?

Consuming soft-shell clams offers numerous health benefits, as they are rich in protein, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. According to the USDA, clams are also an excellent source of vitamin B12, which is crucial for nerve function and the production of DNA. However, it's important to source them from clean waters to avoid contaminants.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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