Collecting Seashells: Types of Shells

by dustytoes

A broad look at the various types of seashells found along the Florida coastline and elsewhere.

Most people visit the seashore on vacation and pick up souvenir seashells without having any idea what they are called or how rare they may be.
On this page you'll be able to see pictures of the shells I have and maybe you will learn a bit about the ones you have in your collection. In fact, you may even have a rare shell and don't even know it!

Respect for sea life is important and I hope that by learning about the mollusks who make these unique homes for themselves, that we end up enjoying, you will agree that they deserve much respect.

Is It Possible To Find Large Seashells on The Beach?

It's very unlikely you'll find one of these just sitting on the shore.

large conch shells

Everyone who strolls the beaches would love to find that one beautiful, large shell.  Just imagine catching a glimpse of the protruding spire, with the rest buried in the soft sand, as the surf rushes out.  You run to the spot before it's covered with the incoming waves and quickly dig it up.  Wow, what a specimen!

I suppose it does happen, but in all my years of visiting east coast Florida beaches, I have never had this experience. Many mollusks who build these homes (shells) live in deep water and some are now protected species.

The beautiful queen, or pink, conch (pictured with a pink murex) is a threatened species. Conch meat is served in local restaurants on the Florida Keys and elsewhere.  And although this shell has been protected since 1985, it is making a slow comeback.

If you are lucky enough to find a big seashell, it may be under water, and inhabited.  Even if the mollusk has died and left the shell empty, often hermit crabs and other living organisms take up residence.  Take a photo and leave the shell where you found it.  It is almost always illegal to collect living creatures from the shore, including occupied seashells.


Shells are homes for the creatures living inside.

Leave occupied seashells where you found them!
Finding big shells is exciting!
Finding big shells is exciting!
My son holding a large occupied shell we found in shallow water.

There Are Two Basic Types of Shells

Seashells can be found as one coiled piece, or they can be made up of two parts.

seashell colors

All the shells you see dotting the beach were made by the creature who lives (or lived) inside.  The mollusk is a marine snail and it's life becomes a work of art in the form of it's shell. 

Mollusks can create a shell that is either all in one piece, or in two sections that are hinged together.  The snails that create one, coiled shell are called gastropods, or sometimes "univalves", while the bivalves are the ones with two separate shell parts, like clam shells.

Generally, the difference in the shells depends upon  the lifestyle of each.  Gastropods crawl along the ocean bottom or among coral using a strong "foot" in search of food, while the bivalves attach themselves to something and are stationary, grabbing food as it flows past.  My picture here of the King's Crown conch is an example of a gastropod, while clams, oysters and scallops, like the Kittenpaw shell is a bivalve.

All seashell photography on this page is my own, unless otherwise stated.  My pictures are NOT free for use by others for any reason.

The Bivalve Shells Are Hinged

Shells that are, or once were, one of two halves are called bivalves.

Bivalve shells are simply shells that were formed in two parts, such as the clam, scallop and oyster.

Usually you will find one part of the shell washed up on the beach as it has broken apart while being rolled in the surf. Finding a whole set, that is not alive, is a great find in my opinion.

On the east coast of Florida the cockle shell (pictured here) is widely found and it can be white, tan, gray, brown or any combination it seems.

Also common finds along the east coast are the large pen shells, tiny coquinas, and numerous other types of clams and cockles.

Seashell Photography Postcards

Seashell photography postcards
Seashell photography postcards

Cowry Shells

This shiny shell looks as if it's made of porcelain.

These are the cowry, or sometimes spelled cowrie, shells. I purchased them and didn't find them on the beach. Both are quite large, with the Atlantic Deer cowry (on the left in the photo) is about four inches long.

This type of shell is coveted by collectors for it's shiny porcelain appearance.  I remember when I bought it that I wondered if it was a real shell because it seemed like it was made of glass.

Some of the cowry shells were used as currency all over the world, many years ago. They are called money cowry - appropriately enough.  In fact, I have read that in some places the shell is still used as such.

Smaller versions of this shell are often used to make jewelry, and often times people will own a cowry necklace.

Do you have a nice collection of shells, or wish you did?

A lot of the time people who collect shells have no idea what they are picking up from the beach.
  Display results
I always took shells for granted until I began to learn about them.

The Junonia is a Beautiful Shell to Add to Any Collector's Display

This is one of the gastropods to look for along the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida has many miles of beaches, but for the serious shell collector, the Gulf coastline is the best  place to do some beachcombing.

The beaches of Sanibel Islandjunonia seashell picture are known as one of the best places in the world for shell collecting - coming in at #3 - for it's shell abundance and variety.  It's the place where you could find a Junonia (pictured) which would be a treat.

Florida gastropods (single shell) you may find on both sides of the state include the following:

  • Slippersnail or Slipper shells (1-2 inches)
  • Shark's Eye (max 3 inches)
  • Fighting Conch (max 4 inches)
  • Worm Snail (length varies)
  • Cerith (about 1 inch)
  • Scotch Bonnet (max 4 inches)
  • Nutmeg (less than 2 inches)
  • Tulips (can be 4-5 inches)
  • Whelk shells (Lighting - see below, Pear and Knobbed)
  • Lettered Olive shells 

Pictures of Large and Small (Juvenile) Lighting Whelks

The large and small shells pictured in the photos below are shells I've had for years.   Although I recognized the big one as a lighting whelk, the identity of the small one eluded me.

As I was going through my seashell collection one day, I looked more closely at the little one and it dawned on me!  It was a juvenile lighting whelk!  I guess an expert would have known right away, but besides the fact that it is shaped the same, and the coloring of dark lines over white is similar, it's opening is on the left side!

Florida Seashells

Adult and Juvenile Lighting Whelk
Seashells by Millhill

From Sanibel Beaches

My lighting whelk shells
My lighting whelk shells

The Left-Handed, Sinistral Seashell

seashells apertures left right

Lightning whelks are sinistral, or left-handed shells, meaning that when you hold them by the tip, or bottom, the aperture will be on the left as opposed to the right like most seashells. 

My photo here shows the lighting whelk (right) with the strawberry conch.  If you happen to find a lighting whelk with the opening on the right, you've found a rare shell!

Books About Collecting Seashells

A guide will help identify shells and tell you where to find them.

I have a few good shell collecting and identifying books.  The "Florida's Living Beaches" book listed  below, by authors Blair and Dawn Witherington, is a comprehensive guide to the beaches of Florida.  Each separate area of the book takes a close look at an aspect of seashore ecology.  It has a section with pictures of shells that are commonly found along the expansive coastline.  You will also discover the best areas of the state to find the more rare types of shells.  Any nature lover will enjoy this book.

The book includes lots more information about how beaches are created, and the ocean water that contributes to coastal habitats.  It covers dune plants, land mammals, birds, fishes, tides, and more.   Each page is packed with photos, and the writers include fun tidbits of information in the "Did You Know?" sections.

These books are sold at Amazon and all three get great reviews.

Florida's Living Beaches: A Guide for...
$21.95  $13.02
Seashells of Georgia and the Carolinas
$9.95  $5.63
Smithsonian Handbooks: Shells
$22.00  $11.54

How Do Seashells Get Those Colors and Patterns?

We tend to pick up the most colorful and unusual shells.

two little shells

The colors of shells are determined by their species and heredity mostly, but also by what the mollusk (animal inside) eats.

They have a fleshy mantle, or "cape", that may either partially, or totally, cover the outside of the shell and it secretes a calcium solution which grows the shell larger while creating the colorful patterns and ridges.  (The Flamingo Tongue shell is totally covered by a pretty, spotted mantle which is not part of it's shell.)

The mantle also polishes the part of the shell it touches and that is why some shells are very shiny. The coloring can also add hardness and be a camouflage to predators.  A good example of the use of shell camouflage, called countershading, is the Chambered Nautilus.

The shape and type of shell produced will have to do with how and where the animal lives and hunts for food. If the shell has spines, like the murex, it may be to discourage predators, and if it's long and coiled, like the olive shell, it is useful for burrowing through sand.

Sealife is amazing and diverse.

Search for shells at low tide.

Also check the high tide line in the sand for deposits from the sea.
Low Tide at New Smyrna Beach, Florida - East (Atlantic) Coast
Low Tide at New Smyrna Beach, Florida - East (Atlantic) Coast

Sometimes the Smallest Seashells Are The Prettiest

Take a closer look at what's near your feet

small colorful seashells

Every shell is unique and beautiful in it's own way and if you can get past the "bigger (shell) is better" mentality, you will discover some wonderful shells right under your feet.  In Florida the coquina clams are abundant and can make a colorful collection.  Conquinas can be just about any color and they live right along the wave line.  In fact when you see shore birds feeding in that area, they are probably eating coquinas.  Since they are so abundant, finding empty coquina shells are easy.  In fact I don't have many in my collection because they were so common to see on the Florida coast, I just did not collect them.

Other commonly found (in certain areas) small bivalves include jingle shells, kitten's paw, oyster and scallop shells.  (The purple and pink splotched shells in this photo are calico scallops).

LIttle gastropods (coiled shells in one piece) can be a great find with bumps and swirls of color, such as the Common nutmeg, moon snail and cowrie.  And remember that the large shells will begin as juveniles and sometimes tiny versions of a magnificent shell can be found.

Small empty (dead) seashells can be collected and used for crafts or decorating so don't overlook the little shells.

(Photo of tropical shells by P. Carter)

Finding Starfish / Sea Stars at the Beach

starfishAsk anyone what they would love to find while visiting the ocean and they will probably say a starfish or a sand dollar.

Sea stars (commonly called starfish) and sand dollars are not really shells.  They are echinoderms and if you find a dead one, you are seeing the exoskeleton of the once living animal. 

Sand dollars live on the sandy ocean floor and sea stars are also ocean dwelling, either moving over the bottom or clinging to coral and sea fans.  

They don't come up on shore unless they have been washed up by a storm.   Living ones will not look like the one in this photo.  If you find a white sand dollar on the beach, it has died and been bleached white by the sun.

The sea urchin also belongs to this group, and all of these treasures will be more fragile than seashells and will break easily.

You Can't Collect Everything You Find on The Beach

Don't collect living seashells. They will die and smell bad, and in many areas it is against the law!

horse conch with living organisms Seashells will be empty if they are "dead" and okay to collect.  If there is something protruding from the opening, or you see a hard cover over the opening, that means it is still occupied.  Starfish and sand dollars will be bleached white or whitish by the sun and will be brittle.  Anything washed up on shore is probably dead.

If you come across something living, take a photo - don't take the shell!   

This horse conch I found was empty, but there were living things (those big bumps - don't know what they are) attached to the outside.  So I took some pictures and put it back in the water.

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Some Advice For The Beach Vacationer

Don't get into trouble while on vacation at the beach

turtle nest

A tropical beach vacation is something many people plan all winter long so don't let your lack of knowledge get you into trouble. 

In many areas taking live seashells from their habitat is illegal.  Also disturbing dunes and especially turtle nests can get you into trouble.  Be aware of the rules and laws wherever you visit or vacation and don't disturb or collect wildlife.

If you do take living sand dollars or seashells, you will be sorry when the animal dies and begins to stink.

Also be aware that hurricane season in Florida runs from June 1st through November 31st with August and September being the two most active months.  You can't help it if a hurricane forms while you are on vacation, but knowing about evacuation proceedures and what to expect ahead of time is a good idea.

(Photo: Sea turtle nest marker.  Credit:Morguefile)

Updated: on 04/05/2015, dustytoes
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

What unique treasures have you collect from the sea?

eric f.gonzales on 09/14/2014

yes...i have a lot of seashells collection...mostly rare ones..i have also rare ancient imperial volute shells with me.

Rose on 08/14/2014

I have a starfish shell from a trip to Kenya's coast. They don't look as good as the live star-fish. The colors fade sadly.

aswriting on 07/31/2014

I remember collecting shells when we went to the coast (mostly cowries), it was great fun, and we even got to pick some moderately large ones. These days there do not seem to be as common.

connie on 09/12/2013

yes i love to see them at the beachs.where is the best place to get them.

dustytoes on 07/11/2013

It seems that all the beautiful places are becoming overrun and sometimes ruined. It's a shame. Thanks for sharing WriterArtist.

WriterArtist on 07/11/2013

I learnt about a lot of new shells today. Thirty years back in my childhood, we could see beautiful shells on the beaches in South India; now they seem barren. Beaches are more crowded now and the sea-shores are not as exotic as of yesterday's.

KathleenDuffy on 03/20/2013

Lovely article with beautiful photographs! A true labour of love. I learned a lot!

dustytoes on 02/28/2013

Thank you wrapitup4me, Mira, and Catana for sharing your sea-shelling experiences. It's a shame when man interferes with nature to "help" us, and we lose opportunities in the meantime.

Guest on 02/27/2013

I used to collect shells as a kid, growing up in Miami. Mostly at Crandon Park, where my dad took us kids pretty regularly. That ended when a barrier was installed to enclose the beach and nothing could get in any more except the water.

Mira on 09/24/2012

I collect shells too, but know next to nothing about them. Now I've learned a few very interesting things: not just their names, but also how they're formed, etc. It's great to find your article!

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