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.

Where to collect big seashells?

Everyone wants to stumble upon a magnificent, huge shell sitting in the sand.

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. (Florida's WEST COAST / GULF is known for it's many shells.)  

The beautiful queen, or pink, conch (pictured with a pink murex) is a threatened species. Conch meat is served in restaurants in the Florida Keys and tropics. 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.


The Living Lightning Whelk

Long ago my son found this big shell on an island along the Indian River in Florida. The mollusk was inside.
Finding big shells is exciting!
Finding big shells is exciting!
Take a photo and put it back.

The Big Whelks of Florida

What is a whelk shell?

It can be confusing as to what is a whelk shell, and what is a conch (pronounced "Konk").  In general, a conch shell is large and heavy.  It's thicker than whelks, which are lighter, yet can still be quite large.

These are the four larger whelks you may come across in certain areas of Florida.  

The shell my son is holding is a big Lightning Whelk.  They open on the left side, which is unique for gastropods, and can grow to be over a foot in length - up to 16 inches.

Recently, while boating, I found a partial Channeled Whelk, and I've found cute Pear Whelks but all were inhabited by hermit crabs.

The channeled whelk can be around 8 inches in length, and the pear whelk is smaller, coming in at 5.5 max, according to my Florida's Living Beaches book.  (I've linked to it on this page.)

I have published an article about The Whelks of Florida on my Seashell blog and I'm updating it with photos as I find the related shells myself.

I Found a Living Horse Conch

This big seashell had the orange mollusk inside. I got some photos and let it be.
Florida Horse Conch
Florida Horse Conch

Identify the Seashells of Florida

These books target Florida beaches specifically. Find a book that identifies seashells where you live.
Florida's Seashells: A Beachcomber's ...
$9.95  $4.95
Shells of Florida-Gulf of Mexico: A B...
$7.95  $6.49
Florida's Living Beaches: A Guide for...
$22.95  $15.57

One of my Seashell books is the Witherington's "Florida's Living Beaches"

This book covers more than just shells.

I have a few good shell collecting and identifying books.  The "Florida's Living Beaches" book listed  above (the 2nd edition is shown, I have the first), 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.

Univalves and Bivalves

These are the two types of seashell. One is a single coiled piece, and the other is two connected 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.

Bivalves live as two connected halves.

You may only find one half of a bivalve on the seashore.

Bivalve shells are simply shells that were formed in two parts, such as the cockle shell, clam, scallop and oyster.  Each of these types of shell includes many varieties that come in many colors and sizes.

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. For this reason, finding both sides of a bivalve attached, is rare.

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

Other bivalves that are sometimes found on Florida beaches are the pen shells, angel wing, Turkey wing, cockles, scallops, telling, clams, and jewel box.

Oysters grow in shallow water and along the shores of islands in the Intracoastal Waterway.  Oyster beds filter the water and are good for the environment, but are a hazard to boaters. The shells are sharp and can damage the hull, and cut feet.

Atlantic Giant Cockle Shell

Atlantic Giant Cockle Shell
Atlantic Giant Cockle Shell

So What Makes a Seashell Rare?

Seashells are rare if they are not often found... no kidding say?  Well, that one is obvious.  But rare shells are also the ones that have been created differently than the norm.  

For instance, a knobbed whelk shell is ordinarily right-handed, with it's opening on the right.  But if a knobbed whelk mollusk gets confused, and makes it's shell backwards, then it's a rare shell.  It's a left-handed knobbed whelk, of which there are not many.

Of course in order to know which shell is not made like all the others, you need to know what the normal shell looks like.  That is why I write about shells.  I am learning along with my readers.  Believe me, I am no shell expert.  

But if you want to know what the shell experts know (the conchologists) and the big time shell collectors, you may be interested in buying the type of book they use.  I will warn you, some of them are expensive!

Unique Books on Seashells

World seashell collecting compendium and coloring and learning book.
By R. Tucker Abbott Compendium of Sea...Peterson Field Guide Coloring Books: ...

Oysters at Low Tide

Often they are hidden just beneath the surface and can be a hazard to boaters in the flats areas.
Oysters in Florida Backwater at Low Tide
Oysters in Florida Backwater at Low Tide

Old, Worn Oyster Shells

Oysters clean the water, but their shells are ugly, and oyster beds, hidden by the tide, are dangerous to boaters.
Oyster shells
Oyster shells

Seashells by Millhill is my Blog

I share seashell pictures, stories and Florida vacation ideas, so please check it out!
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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 Rare Find, A spotted Junonia Shell

I don't have one of these, but they can be found on the Gulf coast of Florida.

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

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, as finding one in great condition is rare.

Florida gastropods you may find on both the East and West (Gulf) 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 

Seashell Return Address Labels

Junonia shell custom return address labels
Junonia shell custom return address l...
Seashells at the Seashore
Seashells at the Seashore

Pictures of Large and Small (Juvenile) Lightning 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!

Moving to the Shore, New Address Postcards

View the online collection and use the templates to customize.
Seashell & Seashore New Address Postcards
Seashell & Seashore New Address Postcards

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.

The east coast of Florida has far fewer shells than the west coast. The high tide line is the best place to find them.
Low Tide at New Smyrna Beach, Florida - East (Atlantic) Coast
Low Tide at New Smyrna Beach, Florida - East (Atlantic) Coast
My Photo

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, which I think are coral) attached to the outside.  So I took some pictures and put it back in the water.

Some Advice For The Beach Vacationer

Know the rules of 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 (pictured) 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.

Swim where lifeguards are present, and check the conditions as there can often be riptides or strong undertow conditions.  Sometimes jellyfish are dead on the beach, which means there could be some in the water too.

Also be aware that hurricane season in Florida runs from June 1st through November 30th 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: 07/18/2017, dustytoes
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

What unique treasures have you collected from the sea?

dustytoes on 05/14/2017

Hi Robin, thanks for the comment. I have two big glass jars where most of my shells go, but I am running out of space! Some shells I put into my potted plants to "dress up" the dirt. And I've put some into the garden too.
Yours is a good question that shell collectors face. I think I will have to think about it, research it, and write a page about it!

Robin on 05/13/2017

I love finding and collecting these precious "jewels". I call them jewels becsuse they are special to me. May I
ask, what do you do with the shells that you find? Do you store them? Display them? How? I am looking for ideas. Thanks

dustytoes on 04/29/2017

Yes Frank, I believe so. Shells that normally spiral to the right, but are found with their spiral left are collectors items, and in some cases worth a lot of money ... from what I've read.

frankbeswick on 04/29/2017

Does the species name sinistrum indicate that the shell has a leftward spiral pattern, for the Latin word for left is sinister?

dustytoes on 04/28/2017

Dana, congratulations on that nice seashell find! A lightning whelk can grow to be around 16 inches long. I don't know how to figure out the age, but do some searching under the name "busycon sinistrum" and you may discover more information. I have 2 seashell books and neither one addresses the age of shells.

Dana Smith on 04/27/2017

I found a pretty big lightening whelk this past summer as I was snorkeling on the shore of Destin, FL. It was uninhabited. I was shocked at the size and how beautiful this shell was. I have visited Destin every summer as a kid, and I have never been this lucky, or even close to it! I would like to know how old this shell is. It is pretty worn down it seems. When I found it, only the very tip was sticking out of the sand. I had to keep digging around it to dislodge it. Please email me if you can so I can send you a picture of the shell and maybe you can assist me in finding out how old my "Ocean queen" is! Thank you.

dustytoes on 03/01/2017

Excellent advice Frank. Location of the find is key. Shells can also look different in the juvenile stage of development. I've had so many people contact me through my blog wanting help, and it's nearly impossible - and especially without a picture!

frankbeswick on 03/01/2017

A picture is needed. But in the absence of a picture the process is to work out where it was found,what sort of shells are found in that area, and then try at first to place it in a general category of shell. Is it a bivalve [a shell with two halves hinged together] is it like a snail shell, or is it something else,like a conch. Once you have settled this and narrowed down quest, the search through the guidebooks on shells and find what you want. Remember that photos and pictures are not always fully representative of individual varieties, and that it is hard for anyone but an expert to pinpoint exact species. Often you can just identify the genus.

dustytoes on 02/28/2017

Well you'd have to describe it really well and then I can try, but I am far from an expert.

Raghunandan on 02/28/2017

I have a shell or like it. Thingh which i found on sea shore after high tide . can you help me to identity what type of thing is this. As it is very unique. I have searched for it on internet but i didn't find anything. So please help me out.

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