What is a chiton? That was the question I asked myself as I began research for this post. From the look of them, they appear to be simply an oval mass of… something. I still haven’t quite decided what exactly chitons look like, maybe some villain from an extremely cheap horror movie?

The backside of a chiton, with the eight plates visible. Image credit: Jerry Kirkhart, via Wikipedia
The backside of a chiton, with the eight plates visible.
Image credit: Jerry Kirkhart, via Wikipedia

In any case, chitons are molluscs that live in oceans, which means they are in the same phylum as squid and octopi, and snails and slugs. The giant Pacific chiton is also known as the gumboot chiton, thanks to its resemblance to part of a gumboot (the red part, I would guess). Pacific chitons are found in the coastal regions of the ocean, from Alaska to California and Japan. They like rocky, shallow areas.

The giant Pacific chiton is the largest species of chiton in the world. They can grow up to 36 cm and weigh over 2 kg. Like all chitons, the giant Pacific chiton has eight plates on its back that act like armour, though in the Pacific chiton’s case, the plates are hidden by its gumboot skin. If you flip over a giant Pacific chiton you will see its giant foot, which is surrounded by gills on either side.

The underside of a Pacific chiton, which is somehow prettier than the backside. Image credit: Jerry Kirkhart via Wikipedia
The underside of a Pacific chiton, which is somehow prettier than the backside.
Image credit: Jerry Kirkhart via Wikipedia

Pacific chitons spend most of their lives attached to rocks. They are nocturnal, and so spend most of the day in a secluded hiding place. When night falls, they zoom out to go feeding, and by that I mean they crawl really slowly. Chitons have little need to move fast, since their prey, algae, doesn’t move a whole lot. They also don’t really have many predators, which is one reason why these guys can live to be forty years old.

Some people eat giant chitons, though apparently their flesh is quite tough, as well as not being very tasty. Still, some groups of people have used them as food sources, and they are also used as bait. Some snails like to munch on the chiton, but usually they just eat the outer shell. Some octopi, sea otters, and sea stars may also have these guys for dinner, but overall the giant Pacific chiton is pretty well off.

I’m more of a fan of chitons than I was before I knew what they were, but they still look kind of creepy to me for some reason. Maybe it’s because I can picture a horde of them making their way slowly towards me, unstoppable by any force of man or nature. But then, I’ve always had a bit of a wild imagination. Mankind has nothing to fear from chitons. Probably.

Cover image source: http://www.elasmodiver.com/BCMarinelife/images/Gumboot-chiton.jpg

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