Abundant species are typically also viewed as ecologically dominant, and are frequently used to characterize the communities in which they live. Such characteristic assemblages may also be used as indicators of environmental conditions, such as relative stability. Fossil and modern turritelline gastropods are often the most abundant species in the marine assemblages and communities in which they occur, forming ‘turritelline-dominated assemblages’ (TDAs). We use data on modern Turritella bacillum from waters around Hong Kong as a case study to analyse fluctuations in abundance over 25 years. While turritellines were not always dominant in the area surveyed (~1650 km2), populations were notably persistent, and rebound after decline of abundances occurred within ~5 years at some sites. δ18O sclerochronology suggests that individuals were ~1–2 years old. It is also notable that T. bacillum was found to be abundant at salinities as low as 10–15 psu, despite the general characterization of turritellines as fully marine. Comparison with data on modern T. communis in the western English Channel corroborates this pattern, as localized sites of high abundance also appear transient. These results have implications for the interpretation of TDAs in the fossil record: they may signify the cumulative result of short-lived, spatially restricted populations, possibly resulting from essentially stochastic larval settlement. This suggests that the palaeoenvironmental setting of fossil TDAs does not always control their occurrence on short temporal scales.