Along the coast of California, there is a group of snails, members of the Subfamily Thaidinae, with a variety of names. Sometimes they are called “rock snails.” Others refer to them as “dogwinkles.” But some shell guide books will call them “purples.”
If one opts for the latter term, then there is the Channeled Purple (Nucella canaliculate), which has a shell that is a yellowish-brown color, the Frilled Purple (N. lamellosa) that comes in white, yellow or orange, the white or gray File Purple (N. lima) and the most variable of all, the Emarginate Purple (N. emarginata), which can be a black or brown, often with lighter colored bands.
But wait a second! Those colors are not purple or anything even close to purple, so what gives here? No, these snails were not named by people who were color blind, nor are these snails’ bodies purple while their shells are not. These snails are very correctly called “purples” because of the extraordinary properties of some of their “relatives.”
Nowadays, with all the modern newfangled synthetic dyes and colorings, the color of the clothes a person wears is dictated mainly by style and personal preferences. But this was not always the case. Back in history, there was one color that was so difficult to obtain that it came to be reserved only for royalty and the extremely well-to-do.
This was, of no surprise, purple, especially a deep crimson purple. It was derived from a unique substance from the snail Family Muricidae, (which contains the aforementioned Subfamily Thaidinae).
The ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, being a major Mediterranean sea port, became a major center for the production and trade of rich purple cloth. To this day, the beautiful color produced by these snails is known as “Tyrian purple.”
Several species were used, including Murex brandaris, which is still to this day known as the Dye Murex. A single snail produces just a small amount of a creamy substance, which when exposed to air and light, turns a lovely violet color. The fluid was individually extracted from larger snails, while smaller ones were crushed and processed together. It took countless numbers of snails just to have enough of the colorant to dye one garment. A robe thus dyed was so expensive and valuable that it was literally worth its weight in gold.
However, the Mediterranean is not the only place with purple dye snails. Dye producing members of Muricidae can be found in all tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. Some of these dye producing snails don’t have to die to give up their dye. These can instead be carefully milked without killing the animals. Furthermore the same animals can be re-milked about every month. In parts of Latin America, to this day, commercial production of Tyrian purple is a major industry. The main species used is the Pacific Wide-mouthed Purple, Purpura patula pansa, which ranges from Baja California to the Galapagos.
When not being milked or otherwise extracted out of them for high-style purposes, the precious fluid found in Muricidaes is used defensively, not unlike the purple ink of squids. It may also be used offensively to subdue prey, but that would hardly seem necessary since much of what they consume are mussels, oysters, barnacles and other basically non-moving critters.
California’s non-purple shelled representatives of purple snails have not exactly changed the course of history like their cousins when it comes to their dying qualities. They are so much smaller than the others, that even if some purple color could be extracted from them, it would be in such infinitesimally small amounts that commercial development of Tyrian dye probably would never have come about.
Look for California’s quartet of purples in intertidal and slightly subtidal waters. They aren’t very big, often just an inch or two long, and typically cryptically colored among rocks or mussels. Just remember, though, if searching for these purples, don’t look for anything that is actually colored purple!