Animals -> Marine Invertebrates -> Primitive Molluscs -> Chitons


Chitons General

Chitons General

Chitons were eaten by Indigenous Peoples on the west coast of North America [1]. Evidence can be found at Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) shell middens on the Pacific Coast, some dating from early and late prehistoric periods [1, 2]. Other shell deposits at Daxatkanada suggest that the Tlingit also consumed chitons in large quantities [3]. The Northern Coast Salish, Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) and Tlingit are reported to have collected chitons regularly and Aleut considered them an important element in their diet [1, 4-6]. According to Lee [7], the Nootka ate chitons on an irregular basis. Chitons are reported to have been used by the Alutiiq (Yupik), also called Sugpiaq, on the southern coast of Alaska [23].

Chitons were readily available and collected by the Tlingit and Nootka throughout the year during low tide [8-10]; however, chitons were avoided during summer months which often brought poison tides [8, 10]. The Nootka also avoided collecting them when herring spawned in March as the milt would enter the plates making the chitons milky and unpalatable [3, 10]. For Pacific cultures, such as Haida and Makah, chitons were an accessible food source in winter. This was especially important when food stores were low, there was a poor fall salmon harvest, or hunting was made difficult by harsh weather [2, 4, 9]. Chitons were sometimes gathered in summer; the Kyuquot would only gather chitons when found on rocks or attached to the shells of other invertebrates they harvested [2, 11].

Chiton distribution was widespread along the coast, found on rocks in the intertidal zone [12, 13]. Yet, at Port Simpson they are reported to have been found attached to rocks in deep water. Prying sticks sometimes made of yew, knives and sharp rocks were used to detach chitons, which were then put into woven baskets [10, 14]. Arima and Dewhirst [15] reported that the Nootka of Vancouver Island used a special spear and net to collect them. More recently, people of Port Simpson (Tsimshian) used knives in addition to special two-pronged forks to pry chitons from rocks and they used man-made baskets to carry them [14]. Chitons were usually gathered by women, although men occasionally helped [13, 15].

Chitons were prepared in many different ways. The Tlingit ate them raw, or dried for winter [8]. Port Simpson people consumed raw chitons that had been soaked in salt water for several days. In addition, chitons were steamed and eaten with animal fat or roasted on a fire [14]. The Kyuquot prepared them in a similar way to clams: baked or boiled. The Kyuquot believed that boiled chitons had medicinal properties that alleviated arthritis pain [11]. The Manhousat would only eat chitons that had exactly eight back plates [16]. 

Black Katy Chiton

Tlingit shellfish middens suggest that black katy chitons were frequently eaten; however they were not collected during summer when the risk of shellfish poisoning was high [3]. The Coast Salish collected black katy chitons, which were usually found grouped in the intertidal zone [9, 17]. Women used a prying stick to remove them from the rocks and usually gathered them with other beach food. The black katy chiton was considered a delight, especially by the women who went out to collect them in canoes May and June. When removing black katy chitons from rocks, the Manhousat were very cautious not to damage the tongue, also known as the foot. If the tongue was impaired during gathering the flesh would become tough. Black chitons that had what looked to be red tongues were the tastiest. The red tongues meant that the gonads were mature and the flesh was ideal to eat [16].

The Manhousat also collected black katy chitons with brown skin and preferred chitons with small back-plates, which were softer and more succulent [16]. Although black katy chitons were available year-round, the Manhousat and Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) preferred to collect them when they were most tender, which was in spring. They were soft in late fall as well, but chewy in winter and summer [10, 16]. The best locations to find the most tender, delicious chitons were areas where fresh water flowed into the sea. A favorite location to gather chitons was a small island called Lhu7aa. Here the locals could put down long planks of wood when the tide went out to reach the island instead of using a canoe. Other choice locations were near a waterfall called Tiitapi; at the entrance of Hotsprings Cove; Mate Island; close to the hot springs; and at Barney Rocks [16].

Black katy chitons were consumed raw or cooked with water, steam or fire [3, 16]. Moss [6] reports that the Tlingit may have pickled chitons in vinegar. Regardless of the method of preparation the back plates and internal organs were always removed and discarded [6, 16]. The gonads were taken out as well, but they were a delicacy and relished. The plates were detached in different ways depending on the method used to prepare the chitons. The internal organs were usually removed with fingers [16].

Ellis and Swan’s Teachings of the Tides gives a detailed description of the Manhousat’s traditions, preferences, and practices for preparing chitons which are briefly described in the following sections.

Black katy chitons that were to be eaten raw were always put in fresh water, which would make them swell and become softer. They were pounded to shatter the back plates and further tenderize them. This method was called ts’itskaa, which means pounded. The Manhousat used two methods to cook chitons: maasmaas and niis. There were three ways of maasmaas: using heat from a fire, tossing onto hot coals for a few minutes and putting between pieces of wood in the fire, or placed on fire-heated stones. The latter method was preferred because the chitons were never charred. Subsequently, the chitons were placed in fresh water to cool so that they could be easily handled. The back-plates were removed by turning them back at each end to release them and then the chiton was gently pulled away. During this time the internal organs and gonads would emerge and were removed. They were usually washed before eating. The only way to remove the entire skin was through Niis, which involved either bringing the chitins to a near boil or pouring scalding water over them. The first method produced the softest chitons and was the best way to prepare tough ones collected in winter. The skin was usually removed with a knife. The plates, organs and gonads were removed in the same manner as maasmaas [16].

Cooked black katy chitons were usually eaten whole dipped in oil. However, men would not eat the mouth, which was considered to represent the vagina of the chiton. Manhousat who ate raw black chitons and subsequently smoked tobacco would experience a high: feeling light in the head, faint, and speaking in a peculiar manner [16].

For cultures of the Northwest Coast, including Manhousat and Nootka, harvesting black katy chitons in spring was an important event, particularly for the women [6, 10, 16]. Manhousat women collected and prepared pounded chitons for a feast they called ha7isht’nlh. They took this time to join their friends, who all sat around cedar-wood boxes filled with fresh water and chitons, to tell stories and share gossip. They would also be joined by the men, who sat outside their circle and ate the pounded chitons [16]. In May and June the Nootka women ate large quantities of black katy chitons [10]. According to Moss [6], the North Coast and Manhousat women held a chiton festival in June when the tides were the lowest. Moss recounts a section of the myth of creation where the trickster Raven, who created humans, throws chitons at the genitals of some of the newly born males, transforming them into females. Another version of the myth describes chitons giving birth to women, after having sexual relations with men. The significance of chitons for women is directly related to the belief that women originated from them [6].

Black katy chiton shells were found in lower Cook Inlet prehistoric middens, suggesting they have been harvested for thousands of years. For the Alutiiq of southern Alaska, black katy chitons, also called bidarki, were not only an important food source, but were also part of their stories, songs, cultures, and traditions. It was harvested from rocks among the kelp and sea cabbage. They were prepared in casseroles, salads, pickled, smoked, or raw. A recent decline in number and size of black katy chitons has been observed by the Aluttiq. Elders generally picked those larger than the size of their palms, while younger harvesters picked those smaller because they have not seen, in their lifetime, how big they can be [23].  

Giant Pacific Chiton

Giant Pacific chitons, also known as gumboot chitons, were commonly eaten by the Tlingit and people at Port Simpson (Tsimshian) [3, 14] and were an important food source for the Tlingit and Southeast Alaskan cultures [18, 19]. Even though the Coast Salish and Nuxalk collected giant Pacific chitons, they were not eaten as frequently as other shellfish [20, 21]. At Port Simpson, giant Pacific chitons were also known as china slippers by the Tsimshian [14].

Giant Pacific chitons were usually found in groups in the intertidal zone, although they may have also been found attached to rocks in deep water [14, 17]. They could be repeatedly harvested throughout the year from the same rocks at the same places so the women need not search for them [14, 16]. Traditionally, women would use a sharp instrument to pry them off the rocks, and gathered them into special baskets [14, 21]. Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) gathered giant Pacific chitons from rocky beaches during low tides, including from under rocks with the use of a digging stick [22].

Giant Pacific chitons were eaten raw, cooked on a hot surface or boiled [18]. Ellis and Swan [16], describe how the Manhousat cleaned and cooked giant Pacific chitons. They began preparing ts’itskaa, pounded raw chitons, as soon as they were pried off the rocks. Just beside the foot a long cut was made, from which the viscera could be removed with their fingers, preventing the chiton from coiling into a ball. They would also make a second cut on the backside of the chiton that joined the first making a crease along which the animal was folded and put on a rock or piece of wood to be pounded. Pounding broke the chiton into two pieces and the plate shattered. Most pieces would fall away and the remaining bits were removed easily. Some Manhousat ate the raw meat from each plate immediately after they cut off the tongue and removed the viscera. More commonly, the chitons were put in large cedar box with fresh water. The water in the box was heated until it almost boiled. The chitons were immediately removed and immersed in fresh water and the animal was turned back to loosen the plates which were carefully removed. The chiton was skinned, then washed and eaten. The Nootka also used this method [10].  Kwakiutl either boiled giant Pacific chitons, then peeled the shells back, washed them, and ingesting them whole or baked them in the ashes of a fire, rinsed them in water several times, then peeled and ate them [22]. At Port Simpson, giant Pacific chitons were probably prepared in the same way as black katy chitons [14]. Regardless of the method used, giant Pacific chitons were not as tender as other chitons and the red skin, which had a disagreeable flavor, was always removed [10, 16]. Only young Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) would eat this type of chiton, and only the young Manhousat would eat them raw as they were much tougher then black katy chitons [10, 16]. Traditionally, the Manhousat steamed giant Pacific chitons in a pit for a long period of time, softening them [16]. The Coast Salish and the Nootka also steamed them [10, 21]. Unlike black katy chitons, the Manhousat never ate the giant Pacific chitons with oil [16]. The people of Port Simpson may have eaten them with animal fat [14].

Local names used for the giant Pacific chitons, p-a:im and p’uwaachi, were vulgar words and held connotations to female sexual organs [14, 16]. These terms are reported to have often made people laugh or smile [10].

Alutiiq elders from southern Alaska preferred the giant Pacific chiton, also called the lady slipper or gumboot chiton, over the black katy chiton because it is much larger (up to 20 cm long) and much easier to spot [23]


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Chitons General

Chitons General

In North America, chitons include two species distributed along the Pacific coast: the black katy chiton (Katharina tunicata) and the giant Pacific chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri).

Chitons have a flat oval shape and a distinctive shell consisting of eight articulated plates or valves bounded by the mantle girdle. On the ventral side, they have a central sucker-like foot they can attach to the substrate surrounded by a row of gills. Most chitons are a few centimeters long, but some, like the giant Pacific chiton can grow up to 30 cm long [1].

Chitons mostly occupy rocky shores, but there are a few deepwater species. They are mostly browsers, scrapping off algae and other encrusting organisms off the substrate with their radula, but some species, like the black katy chiton, are carnivorous and feed on crustaceans and worms. They have separate sexes and fertilization is external [1].

Black Katy Chiton

The black katy chiton (Katharina tunicata) is a primitive marine mollusk occurring along the North American Pacific coast from Alaska to California. In black katy chitons, the thick shinny black griddle covers almost all the whitish dorsal plates, except for diamond shapes along a mid-dorsal ridge. Their underside has a peach colour and their foot is darker orange. They live for around 3 years and generally grow not much bigger than 10 cm long. Black katy chitons safely secure themselves on rocky shores, from the intertidal zones up to 40 m deep, using their sucker-like foot and are able to resist intense wave action. They first spawn in their second year and southern populations generally spawn in spring, while more northern populations spawn in the summer. Predators of black katy chitons include sea urchins and seabirds [2].

Giant Pacific Chiton

The giant Pacific chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri) is a primitive marine mollusk occurring along the North American Pacific coast from Alaska to California. In the giant Pacific chiton, individual dorsal plates are undistinguishable being entirely covered by a thick leathery reddish brown mantle and the underside is yellowish orange. They are the considered the largest chiton and can grow to over 35 cm long and weigh close to 2 kg. Giant Pacific chitons are most often hidden in kelp beds, secured on rocky bottom, from shallow interdidal waters up to around 20 m deep. They spawn in spring in southern parts of their range and later in the north. Giant Pacific chitons do not have many predators, except for mostly sea snails [3].


1.         Howes GJ, Chatfield JE: "Mollusks". In: The Encyclopedia of Underwater Life. Edited by Dawes ACJ: Oxford University Press; 2007.

2.         “Katharina tunicate W. Wood, 1815.” []

3.         “Cryptochiton stelleri Middendorff, 1847.” []


Images provided below were obtained from: Encyclopedia of Life. Available from
Black Katy chiton
© 2009 California Academy of Sciences
Supplier: CalPhotos
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network
Giant Pacific chiton
© 1999 California Academy of Sciences
Supplier: CalPhotos
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network
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