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What is a Soft-Shell Clam?

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  • Written By: Steve R.
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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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.

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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.

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