Man and Mollusc
Uses of Shell-Bearing Molluscs - Past, Present & Future

by Avril Bourquin and many contributors
December 1999

Sammy Snail

There is a lot more scientific information with the advanced version (man_and_mollusc.html)
- if you think you are ready for it!


     This report on man's uses of shells is a "continuing" work.  It never will be finished, for just as today becomes the past and tomorrow becomes the present, man's uses of molluscs and their shelly homes, is boundless!  I have tried to include enough information here and elsewhere on the site, so that you the student can write your own report or that you the educator can pick and choose the information needed to develop a lesson plan suitable to your class or youth group.  I encourage you to go to the books and sites that I have used in helping to develop this report (which are listed at the bottom of the page), and in the links section (available soon!).  There is a wealth of information out there and I have just touched the surface.

     I would advise that you periodically check back to this report, as new information will be added as it comes up!  If you have information or suggestions that you think would benefit this report, please feel free to contact me at any time.

Avril Bourquin

1) Food 7) Music & Communication

2) Trade Goods

8) Personal Adornment

3) Medicinal Uses

9) Industry

4) Tools

10) Offshoots

5) Art and Architecture

11) Miscellaneous Uses

6) Religion

12) Shell Collecting


     1.  Food:

     Along the world's miles of coastline, man has always had a very available food source - high in protein and trace minerals, because of the many kinds of molluscs to be found there. Mussel and oyster beds, clam-flats and other abundant shellfish have always provided an easy source of food.

     Today, fisheries in Europe, Japan and the US alone produce over 1 billion pounds of oyster meat each year. Abalone, a great delicacy, can fetch up to three hundred dollars per pound. Could you imagine a world without Clam Chowder?

*One problem does exist; however. At certain times of the year, (usually the warmer months) many species of salt-water molluscs become very poisonous (L) due to an algal bloom (Note: The algae include many unusual organisms which are one-celled and can swim like animals, and all the many different kinds of seaweed.) known as "red tide." The molluscs filter feed on these tiny creatures (called "dinoflagellates" - no relation to dinosaurs!!) that produce the toxins. Eating shellfish during "Red Tide' can cause serious illness and even death to humans. This could be one explanation why in the Jewish and Muslim cultures, shellfish are considered unclean and forbidden.

     Tastes in molluscan food vary tremendously from one person to the next and from culture to culture; however, when it comes to a question of survival, most molluscs are edible. Some are considered delicacies such as oysters and escargot while others such as the clams and mussels of fresh water ponds and streams are less likely to be consumed due to taste, but none-the-less are very edible. Terrestrial molluscs (the ones that live on land, i.e..) are also eaten. France alone consumes 5 million pounds of escargot (a snail that lives in trees!) every year.


Here are some more examples of molluscs commonly eaten:
  • clams: particularly honored in the New England States of the USA, !!

Protothaca staminea
Little neck Clam

Argopecten gibbus
Atlantic Calico Scallop
  • scallops: There are many different kinds ("species") of scallops eaten in many parts of the world.(Note: The "scallops" you purchase in the supermarket are in fact the muscle which the animal uses to close the two halves of its shell tightly together - called the "adductor" muscle.)
  • oysters: When eaten raw (something i personally can't imagine doing!!), are often thought to be an aphrodisiac.  Oysters can get expensive, which is probably why there is a recipe known as Oysters Rockefeller

Crassostrea virginica
Atlantic or Eastern oyster

Perna viridis

Green mussel

Mytilus edulis

common blue mussel
  • mussels:  (Note: These are especially prone to poison people (L) with "Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning", which is caused by a tiny, one-celled animal called a dinoflagellate which infects mussels and other bivalves from time to time.  They produce a strong poison that affects your brain and nerves, and which has made millions of people sick over the years: NEVER eat mussels or any other bivalve when you don't know if the area has a problem with this deadly kind of food poisoning!!!  In a long-term survival situation, you could perhaps eat a very small nibble, then wait a day or two to see if you get ill, but even this is not advised.
  • whelks: VERY big in Japan, and the French pickle them for winter eating!!

Buccinum undatum
Common Northern Whelk

Cerastoderma edule
Common edible cockle
  • cockles: (Europe & Malaysia) - as in Mary Molone, who cried "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o!"
  • conchs: produce a large amount of meat, and are especially treasured in the Caribbean region, where. the giant Pink (or Queen) Conch  is farmed extensively, in man-made ponds, or sheltered bays

Stombus gigas
Giant Pink or Queen Conch

Loligo spp, Illex illecebrosus
California or Market squid
  • squid & octopus: Particularly popular in Japan, but is catching on in parts of the Western World.  In Newfoundland (Canada), they are used by the ton as bait for several kinds of fish. (Note:  Some octopuses and squid are incredibly smart!!  They are capable of learning to solve problems and do mazes - pretty clever for a mollusc!)
  • pen shells: (Japan and the Mediterranean)

Pinna nobilis
Pen or Fan Shell

Bathybembix bairdii
Baird's topsnail
  • top shells: (These are shaped like old-fashioned tops - pointed on one end, flat on the other.) - Caribbean especially, where the West Indian Top considered a delicacy
  • abalone: a well-known delicacy in many parts of the world.  Some rare species can sell for up to $300 a pound ($760 per Kilo)!!

Haliotis corrugata

Pink Abalone

Littorina angulifera

Angulate or Mangrove Periwinkle
  • periwinkles: These, once again, are much loved by the French, who really like their seafood!
  • coquinas: (Caribbean) - Tiny clams, for chowder!

Donax variabilis
Southern or variable coquina

Cellana exarata

Hawaiian Opihi
  • limpets: Called "Chinaman's hats" for their shape, they hold onto rocks very tightly. Example: "Opihi”, which lives in Hawaii
  • Chitons: Example: Pacific Northwest Native Americans ate the Giant Pacific Chiton, which gets up to 300mm (12") long!!

Cryptochiton stelleri
Giant gumboot chiton

Turbo cornutus
Spiny top shell
  • Turban shells: ( Entire Indo-Pacific, but especially Japan, where if it comes from the sea, they will eat it!!!)
  • helmet shells:  These can grow very large indeed: a 300 - 350mm (12-14") Horned helmet from the Philippines could feed a whole family!!

Cassis cornuta
Horned Helmet

Tridacna gigas
Giant clam
  • giant clams: Although they are rare and protected today, just imagine the amount of meat a fat, 1300mm (nearly 4 feet!) Giant Clam could produce!!  The Bear Paw clam is still commonly eaten in the Philippines.
  • Busycon carica:  This is an important ingredient in the Italian dish called “scungilli marinara” and the Busycon is more commonly referred to as the Bulot shell.

Busycon carica

Knobbed Whelk

     Very few molluscs are actually poisonous, and a huge variety of them end up in cooking pots around the world - The animals that once lived in most ornamental shells sold in stores probably ended up that way!

     Man and Mollusc now has a Data Base under construction: (molluscan_food_mp.html) I am attempting to list as many edible mollusc species as possible. You can also find a lot of information on specific shells being consumed, whether or not they are commercially harvested, being raised by aquaculturists and in a few instances, I've even included recipes. This is a bit advanced if you are under the age of about 12 years; but feel free to visit the data base. I hope you enjoy this new project. Avril (

     2. Trade Goods:

     Shell currency has been around for over 4,000 years and was, in it's heyday, the most widely used currency in the world. Even today, there still exist minor currencies based on certain shells.

Some examples of shells' uses in trade are:

  • Cowrie shells, collected loose in bags or strung into strands, were the earliest forms of currency used in many countries. The Chinese, so far as we know, were the first people to use cowries as currency. Here, cowries have been found in prehistoric Stone Age sites. Examples of other country's native money-strands are the "diwara" of New Guinea, "rongo" in the Melanesian islands and "sapisapi" in Africa. The image of the cowrie as a type of currency was so strong that the first metal coin minted in the Greek colony of Lydia (around 670 B.C) was modeled after that shell. By the eighteenth century, approximately 400 million cowries were being traded per year (that's a LOT of shells!!!) mostly for the purchase of black slaves. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it could take up to 100,000 cowries just to buy a young wife. Inflation, it seems, was the main demise of the cowrie currency.

In New Guinea, the kina, (main currency) and the tabu (shell currency) are both used in some areas of New Guinea. It is thought that the kina was named after the gold-lip pearl shell which is the most highly prized shell by the various cultural groups. Too learn more about tabu, visit the Money - Traditional Tolai Tabu web Page. ( New Guinea Traditional Currency - Tabu.htm)

Today, the currency of Papua New Guinea is made up of Kina (keena) and toea (toya) with 100 toea equal to One Kina.

Live mid-market rates as of 2003.02.28 17:36:21 GMT.
1.00 PGK Papua New Guinea Kina (PGK)= 0.278396 USD United States Dollars
1 PGK = 0.278396 USD 1 USD = 3.59200 PGK

Click HERE to see photos of New Guinea tribal costume (new_guinea.html)

  • Hard clamshells and whelks were the shells used to make the North American Indian wampum. Eastern Indians also used the tusk shell as a trade shell. Wampum continued to be used as money through the first half of the eighteenth century when it finally died out due to counterfeiting and mass production.

Mercenaria mercenaria
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Hard clamshells, Northern Quahog

Dentalium (Antalis) pretiosum 
Indian-money Tusk, I"o*qua shell

See a Hoopa Indian Dentalium Purse (hoopa_purse.html)

  • Trade Beads and other ornaments were made of  "Spiny Oyster" for barter
  • The Chumash Indians of California, U.S.A. also make beads from the purple olive shell that they use as money.  The name “Chumash” actually translates to men “bead money makers”. 
    Y ou may which to visit them at their web site.
    ( )

Olivella biplicata
(Sowerby I, 1825)
Purple Olive Shell

·     Pearly oysters were traded all over the Panamanian and Andean region.

·         Aztecs paid shell tributes to the Emperor Montezuma.

·         Ancient Phoenician coins distributed throughout the Mediterranean world were sculptured in the likeness of the scallop, murex and Triton shells.

  •     Coins from many countries display a mollusc on one side e.g.:
    • Sacred chank (Turbinella pyrum Linne), on the chertrum coin of Bhutan
Looking for photo

Turbinella pyrum
    • Imperial Volute (Cymbiola imperialis Linne) on the 1 sentimo Philippine coin (1983-1993)

Cymbiola imperialis
    • Triton's Trumpet (Charonia tritonis Linne), on the 2 vatu Vanuatu coin

Charonia tritonis
    • Spider Conch (Lambis), on the 1 cent Tuvalu coin

Lambis lambis
    • RatCowrie (Cypraea stercoraria Linne), on the 1 cedi Ghana coin

Cypraea stercoraria
    • Queen Conch (Strombus gigas Linne), on the 1 dollar Bahamas silver dollar

Strombus gigas
*For more examples of coins bearing a molluscan image, please visit Guido Poppe's excellent site "" (


  • Stamps from many countries feature various species of molluscs. Today there are over 5,000 stamps depicting seashells, and quite a few people collect them!


WWW Sites on Stamps bearing the molluscan image:

  • Conchology:  by Guido Poppe: ( Go to Shell Related then Stamps: "There are over 5080 stamps figured, 1600 details highlighted. You can search by country, by theme, family, species etc... Each stamps is documented (when you click on it).
    This database has been compiled by philatelist Tom Walker from Great Britain. He will be delighted to receive news from fellow collectors who may detect stamps not listed as yet, or just to have contact with you to discuss the many topics around this fascinating hobby.
  • Cone Shells on Stamps: by Dr. Bruce Livett: (“Tom Walker ( has created the following resource detailing countries where particular species of cone shells are illustrated on stamps.    This comprehensive catalogue now has illustrations of nearly every stamp. Click on the particular Country to view. Tom is always happy for new collectors to contact him."  This is one of Dr. Bruce Livett’s sites from Grimwade Laboratories.
  • Cone Shells From Around the World Stamps:  Another great stamp page by Dr. Bruce Livett

Books on Stamps bearing the molluscan image:

  • A Checklist of Mollusks on Postage Stamps: by Tom Rice (Of Sea and Shore:
  • Stanley Gibbons: Collect Shells on Stamps


     3. Medicinal Uses:

Shell amulets were once thought to ward off ill health, infertility or bad luck. Shells have also been ground up for use in potions and for various medicinal uses throughout history. Today the shell, its living flesh and by products are being studied and used in many areas of medicine. Some examples:

  • The deadly venoms of some Cone Shells (Conidae) are today being used to help victims of strokes and heart disease, and to produce a revolutionary new drug for chronic pain control

Miscellaneous cones

Mercenaria mercenaria
  • An extract from the hard clam or "Quahog" (Mercenaria mercenaria L.) is a strong growth inhibitor of cancers in mice. It is called mercenine, after the clam's scientific name
  • Paolin, a drug made from abalone juice, is an effective inhibitor of penicillin- resistant strains of bacteria.
  • Ground and processed oyster shells are used as a calcium supplements both for humans and animals.

  • Oyster juice has been found to have anti-viral properties, and may be made into a drug eventually.

Olympia Oyster
(Ostrea conchaphila)

Mytilus edulis

Common Names: The Common Mussel,Common bay mussel,blue mussel

  • The threads that some mussels (Mytilidae) use to attach themselves to rocks, piers, and other hard surfaces are being tested as possible glue in surgery. (Note:  These are called "byssal" threads, from the Latin word byssus, which means "fine linen", which is silky, like the fine threads of many molluscs.  Quite often, a Latin or Greek word borrowed by science in this fashion.)
    Mytilus edulis
  • The cement of the Carrier Shells (Xenophoridae) is being studied for use as a possible cement for bone fractures. (Note: The Carrier shells are the camouflage experts of the mollusc world: they attach all kinds of objects - shells, rocks, pieces of coral, sponges, bottle caps. to their shells, so they look like a little pile of trash on the bottom of the sea - a great way to avoid being eaten!

Shell shown is the Xenophora (Xenophora) mekranensis konoi Habe. Picture courtesy of: Sharpe Shells

  • In the Peruvian Andes, powdered mother of pearl is sold in the markets to promote healing of wounds (unproven). (Note: Mother of pearl is the beautifully iridescent interior of some bivalves, which the mollusc also uses to surround small, irritating objects which get inside its mantle, or outer body - forming a pearl!!)

  • In Vietnam, traditional medicine has a wide variety of uses for shells: powdered oyster shell is taken to treat acid indigestion, fatigue and to stop hemorrhage. It is also sprinkled over open wounds and boils. Cuttlefish bones are used as a remedy for rickets (which is caused by lack of vitamin C), a healing agent in the treatment of gastro-intestinal troubles, a local anti-hemorrhagic (i.e., it stops internal bleeding), and as an antiseptic is cases of inflammation of the middle ear. The flat shell of the Abalone, with its iridescent inside, is powdered and taken orally to improve vision, to remove keratoses (cataracts), and to improve such conditions as hemeralopia (where you can see at night well, but hardly at all in the daytime!. Powdered pearls from oysters are used as a topical eye medicine (i.e., you put it right on your eyes!!), and it has been scientifically proven to have some anti-inflammatory effects on a painful condition called conjunctivitis, where the surface of the eye becomes red and sore.

4. Tools:

     From prehistoric times, man has used shells for tools. This practice has been born out by archaeological findings in ancient sites and still carries on even today. Some examples of these shell tools are:

  • Household dishes, cooking pots and utensils: cutlery, scoops, spatulas, etc. were often made from bivalves and larger gastropods such as the bailer (Melo (a Volute), whelk (Family??), Nautilus and turban (Turbinidae) shells.  (NautilusNote:  This is an example of where the Scientific and "common" names of an organism are the same.  Sometimes, the common name comes first, and the person describing the organism just uses it, or turns it into a Latin word - but sometimes the Scientific name comes first, and the general public uses it just out of convenience!)

Melo melo

Tridacna gigas
  • Food pounders were made from the crystalline stomach style (which the animal uses to help digest its food) " giant clam"  (Tridachna gigas L.), in the South Pacific.
  • Storage containers for such things as perfumes, ointments and medicines were made from some of the larger bivalves and univalves such as the Nautilus.

  • Oil lamps made from shells are a frequent find throughout the Middle East. There are examples of these made from bear paw shells (Hippopus hippopus Linne) and the spider conch (Lambis spp). They work by holding oil while the wick floats on the surface.
  • Fishing gear: fish lures, octopus lures, hooks and sinkers were made from abalone, pearl shell and cowries.

Old taco (octopus) lure

The new taco lure is still used today for fishing octopus
  • Tweezers, tongs and claspers were made from bivalves (the two halves making them ideal for this!).

  • Farming Tools: Shovels plow blades and hoes for tilling the soil were made from hard, sharpened shell pieces.

  • Building tools: designed to split and smooth building and roofing materials such as palm fronds and bamboo canes.

Noetia ponderosa

Blades and scrapers for cutting and skinning hides were made from shells such as the ark shell (family Arcidae) (Note:  Many of the "scientific" names of molluscs came from the author's idea of what the shell looked like.  Arcidae, for example, came from the idea that their shells look like miniature versions of Noah's Ark!  Many of the early "naturalists" (i.e., people who studied nature) were doctors, and some of the names they gave to interesting shells are quite "naughty", to say the least!!)

  • Adze, knife and axe blades were made from shells with sharpened edges.
  • Drills, chisels, scrapers, sanders, etc. were made from various shells such as the Red Helmet shell (Cassis rufa L.) and were used in such trades as woodworking, farming and tool making.

Cassis rufa

Strombus gigas
  • Weapons such as spearheads and gouges were made from sharpened and shaped pieces of hard shells such as the Queen conch (Strombus gigas L.).
    • Conch Daggers: comments by Henk Menis (See NOTE at end of page)
  • Bailing buckets (made from "bailer" shells!!) are still in use by native fisherman in the South Pacific and Australia today.


5. Art and Architecture:

     Man has long been inspired by the graceful symmetry and beauty of shells. Archaeological diggings at many ancient sites have produced shells and artifacts in the design of shells. Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans used the shell's shape as part of their building design and decor. Shells and shell motifs have often been incorporated into man's homes and public buildings. Architecture has been profoundly influenced by the symmetry of molluscs. Many great artists were so inspired by the beauty, diversity and design of the shell, that they incorporated them into their masterpieces.

Here are a few examples of shell artistry, famous artists and architectures:


  • Botticelli's Birth of Venus has Venus rising from the foam in a scallop shell. In the ancient world of the Mediterranean, this theme of Aphrodite's (Venus's) arising birth from the shell repeats itself in figurines and wall paintings.


The Birth of Venus
  • Pierodella Francesca incorporated the scallop shell Pecten jacobaeus L. into his art.



Montefeltro Altarpiece

  • Benvenuto Cellini's "The Jewel Chalice" . This precious work of art is a golden shell, exquisitely chased and adorned with jewels. Other artists who included shells in their work are: Ensor, Rodin, and Brusselmans.

    Benvenuto Cellini
    Italian Mannerist Sculptor and Goldsmith, (1500-1571)
Searching for a photo
  • Other artists who also included shells in their work are: Ensor, Rodin, and Brusselmans.
Bernini made the famous Triton (designed after the Charonia or trumpet shell) fountain in Rome.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
( -1598-1680)

Fountain of Triton
Piazza Barberini, Rome

Michelangelo, and many other sculptors and artists,  (famous or not!) used shell images and forms in their works - why? Because shells are beautiful!!

Michelangelo Di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
(b. March 6, 1475, Caprese, Republic of Florence [Italy]--d. Feb. 18, 1564, Rome),

Visit the Web Gallery of Art to see his most famous work

St Paul


  • Leonardo da Vinci drafted the first spiral staircase plans (which are still used by architects today!) from studying the simple snail shell with its interior whorls.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Italian painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, scientist and all-around genius.

Example of a Spiral Staircase
The spiral tops of Grecian Columns were designed after a nautilus shell cut in half.



Example of spiral-topped Grecian columns: (
  • During the Renaissance, architects copied shell shapes for design in niches, facades, tombs and pedestals.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum around the Japanese Miracle Shell (Thatcheria mirabilis (Angass).

Guggenheim Museum

New York

  • The Sydney Opera House was designed to look like a giant Cock's Comb Oyster (Lopha cristagalli (Linne)).  Go to the JØRN UTZON for 2 great pictures of this building (the second one is best!).

The Sydney Opera House
  • The Mayans of Mexico carved bivalves and conch shells into the walls of their public buildings and temples.

See: Man and Mollusc Article: Spondylus, Strombus, and Conus:
Offerings to the Andean Gods



Today, man's love affair with the shell is still seen in many of his crafts such as:

  • Shell cameos: Especially popular in Victorian England.  A few Italian artisans still make beautiful cameos out of the Red Helmet shell (Cassis rufa L.)



A Piece from Cameo
  • Sailor's valentines: On long voyages, sailors had plenty of time on their hands, so many of them made gifts to give to their girlfriends.   These included the famous Scrimshaw, usually done on Walrus tusks or Whalebone, and lovingly carved shells - the "Sailors' Valentines"!

Questor Gallery:


Sailor's Valentine from Questor Gallery
  • Carved decorative shells: A specialty of India and the Philippines.  While many are little more than trinkets, the best are truly beautiful little works of art.

Here is a Cypraecassis rufa carved with a cameo on it.


  • Shell floral arrangements: These are usually of excellent quality, when you can find them - but you could make your own!  Most craft shops have lots of decorative shells, and it is a fun craft to get involved with!



My own Floral creation
(Avril Bourquin)
  • Shell decoupage: This is essentially making pictures by gluing shells or pieces of shell inlay onto a background.  It can be used to produce bric-a-brac, or Exquisite works of art - depending on time, skill, and what you want from it!
  • Sea shell figurines and toys: Made in Taiwan, the Philippines, India and other places with inexpensive labor and plenty of shells.  Many of them are extremely imaginative!

    Lots of us crafters make them at home as well, as you can see.

  • Jewelry:  Shells have been used to make Jewelry for thousands of years - especially valued for this is the exquisitely iridescent (i.e., containing all colors of the rainbow!) interior of Abalone (Haliotis spp) shells, and the shiny "mother of pearl" interior of oysters and several other bivalves.


  • Today, many artisans are elctroplating real shells with gold and silver. They're also making many fabulous and very realistic glass and crystal shell figurines.

(Can you find examples of some of these on the web?)

Shell Crafts remain a distinct form of decoration. Many of the art forms of today started in the early eighteenth century.  The chief credit for making shell work so popular and fashionable a pastime goes to England and specifically to Mrs. Delany and the Duchess of Portland (1714-1785).  Untold millions of shells are displayed in homes and are cherished as curios and in treasured private collections worldwide. (

  • Man has been using shells to decorate his dwellings and public meeting places since before the dawn of history.  (Note: Take a look around your own house - bet you find a shell or two somewhere!!)

  • Ancient Greeks collected shells to decorate their gardens and fishponds.

  • At the height of the Rococo era, real shells for decoration became vogue. Shells were especially used to make little houses and grottoes in the gardens and parks of great chateaux and houses in France and England.

  • Many Coats of Arms (symbols of a socially prominent family) bear shell images.

A Parting Note and a shared memory from some good E-mail friends:

"In Nagoya, we went to a place called Gamagory (town name) Fantasy.
It was like a shellers' Disneyland, a place covered wall to wall, floor to ceilng in shell displays. I'm sure that it would be an ecologist's nightmare...Dan "



     Shells have played a central role in religion from prehistoric times on. Dominating early religious practices, cowry shells had powerful symbolism (basically sexual, for they were first and foremost a female symbol) and this was renewed in the religions of the great civilizations that followed. The presence of shells in prehistoric burial places indicates that their symbolic power was believed to continue beyond life.

     Shells in some cultures even today are used as amulets, good luck charms, and as symbols for love, fertility and life eternal.

     Some examples of some these religious practices are:

  • Africa: Shells fetishes (Note: a "fetish" an object which is treated with reverence and respect because it is either thought to have special powers, or is where a god or spirit lives, at least part of the time) were often used in worship. Ceremonial garbs are many times decorated with shells and were used in some religious ceremonies.

  • North American Indians also made fetishes of shells. The Canadian Ojibwa tribe maintained a Grand Medicine Society in which the sacred emblem was a shell.

    Turbinella pyrum
    Indian Chank Shell

    India: Hindus: The god Vishnu holds his staff crowned with a very rare left-handed Chank shell (Note:  Hold a shell up, with the siphon (the open end) down.  Most shells will open to the right.  Sometimes, a specimen will coil the other way; so it opens to the left - so we can say shells are "right-handed and left-handed - or, "dextral" and "sinistral".  Most Chank shells are right handed, so the left-handed ones are rare, and treasured far more!)  The Hindu, when praying, often clasps a sacred Chank or other venerated object in his hands, believing that it will help his or her petitions be heard. Priests also use it for holding sacred oils.
  • Asia: Buddhists: The Chank shell also plays a large role in Buddhist ritual music and ceremonies, and figures into Buddhist iconography.
  • Spain: The home of the shrine of Santiago (i.e., St. James): St. James's badge is the Giant European scallop shell.   Pilgrims to this shrine purchased the simple but exquisite scallop shells and wore them as a sign of their pilgrimage to the shrine. This scallop also appears in many paintings and statues of this saint throughout Europe.

Pecten jacobaeus

(Linnaeus, 1758)
  • Egypt, China and other cultures used the cowry in connection with their burials.

  • Sierra Leone: Cannibals during the nineteenth century used cowry shells in part of their ceremonial rituals.

  • Pre-Columbian South and Central America: Archaeological sites have produced shell trumpets that may have played a role in religious ceremonies.  In the Andes region, a Thorny Oyster and the. Giant E. Pacific Conch, as well as the Atlantic Winged Oyster all had important religious significance.  The Aztecs of Mexico also used shells in their religion:  Tlaloc, the rain god, is depicted as emerging from a conch shell. They also used conch and. Horse Conch shell trumpets.

  • Minoan Crete: Shell trumpets were used in religious ceremonies.

  • Christianity: Many churches had or still have baptismal fonts made of the famous "Giant Clam" shell (Tridacna gigas Linne) or are designed in their likeness. They are though to be a symbol of birth.

     7.Music and Communication:

Long before our modern day communication systems, man found that trumpets made from shells produced a sound that carried for many miles. By using as series of trumpet blasts, messengers were able to communicate fairly detailed messages from village to village, tribe to tribe.  (Note:  The Seashell Trumpet Site is a great place to learn how to make your own shell trumpets and other instruments!!) (
In some countries, shells have been strung or tied together, or they have had seeds of sand added to them and then been sealed off so that they act as a rattle.  This was then used to accompany song and dance.

Check in here to see how to make a conch horn, to see what they look like and how they sound.

Some ways in which shells were or still are used are:

  • as a summons to religious ceremonies as well as often playing a role in the ceremony itself.
  • as a daily call to prayers. Shinto priests in Japan still use the Triton Trumpet shell for this even today!
  • as a summons to call warriors to battle and to ring out triumphs in battle.
  • as an announcement to herald the entrance of kings, emperors, heroes, or important persons. (or, in Fiji to this very day, to announce that fish is being sold at the market, or at the pier!)
  • as a prelude, or to call people to public gatherings, such as tribal or community meetings, feasts, sporting events, etc.
  • as a curfew announcement  - and is still used in Samoa today, as a signal to proclaim the return of a sailing vessel from a voyage or fishing trip.
  • as a fog horn in the Mediterranean.
  • as an accompaniment in songs, chants and dance throughout the Indo Pacific.
  • as a ritual - blowing of the Triton Trumpet at sundown is still customary in Hawaii today.

Almost any shell modified by drilling a hole into it can be used to make music. Any large shell, unmodified and filled with water, can be used to make musical gurgling sounds (try it!!).  Most of us, at some time or other, have held an empty shell up to our ear to hear the music of the ocean waves (Note: The "whooshing" sound you hear is actually a mixture of all the sounds around you, bouncing off the hard sides of the shell: if you could find a completely quiet place to hold a shell to your ear, you wouldn't hear a thing!).

 Some shells commonly used for making music, and for signaling devices are:

  • Horned helmet  - This is a huge, heavy shell, which takes great lungs to blow, but also makes a BIG sound!!

Cassis cornuta

Charonia tritonis
  • Triton's Trumpet - (Note: The Triton Trumpet shell, as its name suggests, makes a Fabulous trumpet, since it grows to over 450mm (20 "), and has a very large aperture (i.e., opening) - so it can produce a very low, very loud sound which if blown by someone with strong lungs, can be heard for miles!!)
  • Queen conch -  (Note: This is the common large shell found lining garden plots, paths, and as door-stops (which is why it is sometimes refereed to as the "door-stop conch"!) Throughout North America.  In many parts of Florida, however, pollution and over-collecting for commercial purposes have nearly eliminated many local populations, so the species is now protected in the USA, although some are still imported from the West Indies.)

Strombus gigas

Cassis tuberosa
  • King Helmet  - Lives in the Caribbean Sea, and gets up to a foot (300mm) long, and very heavy.
  • Giant Frog shell - Indian and Pacific Ocean.  I don't know why they are called Frog Shells.

Bursa bubo

Strombus galeatus
  • Giant Stromb or conch - From Central America.

     8. Personal Adornment:

It can be said that every culture has used shells, whole or in part, and pearls as personal adornment. Some cultures even wore shells as part of their elaborate costume to signal their distinct tribal identities and to display their role and rank within the tribe. In some parts of India, a Hindu woman's equivalent of a wedding ring is a bracelet made of the sections of the Indian (or Sacred) Chank shell.

Picture courtesy of Helen Dennet

Here is a picture of a man from the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea wearing a baler chest ornament.

Different cultural groups have evolved different ways of decorating themselves with shells and one can often guess which tribe a person comes from by the shells being worn.


To see more photos of New Guineans wearing tribal costumes, click HERE (new_guinea.html)

Some of the other ways shells have been used as adornment are:

  • as shell jewelry (pendants, earrings, finger rings, nose rings, bracelets, etc.)

  • As buttons and fasteners Abalone shells, especially the famous Paua shell from New Zealand, were once extremely popular for buttons - until plastic took over!!
The freshwater mussels of the Mississippi River system were used extensively to make “pearl buttons” for many years.
  According to one source (Pennak) in the year 1912, there were 196 pearl button factories in 20 states along the rivers of this great river system.  They sold over 6 million dollars worth of buttons that year.  These same mussels are today being used as the “seed” for cultured pearls.
  • Shell or mother of pearl (iridescent shell interior of many species of bivalves) were commonly used on ceremonial or religious garbs, as decoration, or intrinsic parts of their function.

  • as clothing adornment, pearls are frequently sewn on as jewellery, fresh and salt-water pearls are used in many ways as inserts in ceremonial masks.

  • Denatlium Purse. These photos show a carved elk antler purse which was used by the people of Hoopa Indians in California to carry their Dentalia shell money. It was made and used by men. (hoopa_purse.html)

Two examples of man using the by-products of molluscs for decoration or fancy clothing are:

Two examples of man using the byproducts of molluscs for decoration or fancy clothing are:
1. as fine gloves, caps stockings and collars. These were once made from the "golden fleece" or byssus threads of Pen shells (Pinnidae).

Pinna ragosa

2. as Dyes. Dyes made from molluscs were used to beautify clothing and other items made from cloth. Depending on the species of mollusc used, the final product varied from red to violet to almost black. As early as the fifteenth century B.C., the people of Tyre and Sidon had found a way to extract the purple dye from some molluscs. The same royal purple colour worn by kings, emperors and high priests in the past is still used in the robes and alter mantles of some religions today. (Note: The color the ancients called "purple" (Royal or otherwise), was in fact closer to a dark burgundy or maroon, and various shades of blue were also included under the general moniker (i.e., name) of "Purple".  In the northern Mediterranean, the dye makers found they could change the color produced by peeing into the vat! (The priests and nobles who wore the finished product probably never even knew!!)

  • An example of this is The Association for the Promotion and Distribution Of Tekhelet (Biblical Blue in Jerusalem, Israel. This society still uses and makes the Biblical blue to produce the Jewish ritual fringes on their prayer shawls. In the Old Testament, this blue was so rare and highly valued that it could be collected only once every seventy years and was used to dye just one thread at each corner of the prayer shawl.

  • Even though artificially produced dyes are available at a fraction of the cost, many Mexican and South American natives still prefer the molluscan dyes for their garbs, since they produce more natural - looking and traditional hues In Oaxaca, the Mixtec still search the seashore for the pretty Wide-mouthed Purpura shell, squeeze some of their juices onto yarns and return the shell to its home, to be used again the following season. These same dyes were used as early as 400 B.C.

    Some molluscs that have been used to dye material are
  • Murex miliaris Gmelin, 1791 (Syn: Vitularia miliaris) (Mediterranean)

Murex miliaris
  • The Purple Dye Murex (Murex brandaris): Mediterranean - Millions and millions of these Murexes were killed to make purple dye for the Roman Empire.
  • Trunculus Murex (Hexaplex trunclulus (Linne, 1758)): This shell was equally important with brandaris in the ancient purple trade and it was most extensively used by the Phoenicians, but also by the Romans and other Mediterranean cultures.

Murex brandaris
and Murex trunculus
  • Certain Rock Shells: (e.g. Thais haemastoma) (Europe) - These live on rocks at the Low tide mark, and just below.

Thais haemastoma
  • The Atlantic Dog whelk (or "Dogwinkle"):(New England and Eastern Canada, and also Europe).  In Nova Scotia, (Canada), someone once tried to set up a factory to produce purple dye from this species, but it flopped because it took too many people to gather and handle the millions of individual specimens involved: by the time they paid all the workers, there was no money left for to make a profit!

Nucella lapillus
  • The Purple-mouthed Purpura (Central America) (see above article on dyes).


Purpura patula pansa

**     Note: All of the above species belong to the Murex Family, and all produce a bluish-reddish-purplish type of dye.


Concholepas concholepas

     9. Industry:

Today, molluscan research is taking place in the areas of: parasitology, biochemistry, mathematics, archaeology, paleobiography, palaeontology, taxonomy, ecology and zoology.  Also, many of the categories of use discussed above have significant economic impact, mostly in many small businesses, so the total economic activity involved in man's varied uses of molluscs is quite major!!!

Some other industries also making use of molluscs are:

  • Aquaculture (farming of abalone, oysters, scallops, mussels, etc.)
  • Horiciculture (farming escargot) - Big Business in Europe!
  • Import & export companies of shellfish as food.
  • Sea shell and shell artifact importers, exporters and distributors:  shell collectors, tourist shells, shell crafts.
  • Jewellery designers and manufactories

  • Construction industry:  Shells along with gravel are used for building roads in some areas, and lime from shells is a vital component in the production of concrete and plaster.

  • Fertilizer manufacturing (lime is an important nutrient for plants and therefore has been used as a vital component of plant fertilizer)

  • Manufacturing caulking and glue (Some cultures still use a ground up shell mixture as glue and as a caulking compound for such things as boats).
  • Pearl Button Industry:  although note as important as it was in the early 1900s, it still remains as an industry in many countries.
  • Paint production (Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest ground shells into a powder, mixed it with salmon eggs and then used it as the white paint on totem poles)

  • Pearl industry, both salt and fresh water pearls. (Note: Worldwide, pearls are a $20 Billion dollar industry (i.e., USA dollar - the "International Currency"  - it is used all over the world for trade.

     10. Offshoots:

Shells have had an indirect influence in advancing other industrial and world concerns in areas such as:

  • Exploration voyages both on land and sea
  • SCUBA diving and snorkeling ventures and companies: partly spurred on by collectors looking for deep-water shells.
  • Development of marine reserves and parks - to protect endangered (by pollution and destructive fishing techniques mostly -NOT shell collectors!!!) species of molluscs and other sea life, such as corals.
  • The Shell Oil Company of today, started out as a shell import company. When the value of the shell buttons in industry fell, they were forced to look for a better-paying commodity, and got lucky with oil.

     11. Miscellaneous Uses:

  • Shells are ground up and added to chicken feed (for stronger eggs)

  • For decades the large Strombus gigas was used as ballast in ships returning from the Caribbean.

  • The Queen Conch of Florida and the Caribbean, was once eaten in such large quantities that their empty shells were used in the building of harbors and breakwaters!
  • The Queen or Doorstop Conch (Strombus gigas L.) was once consumed in such large quantities that their empty shells were used in the building of harbors and breakwaters!

Strombus gigas

  • South American Indians use shell lime to extract the narcotic (Cocaine!) from cocoa leaves.

  • Work is being conducted on the remarkable adhesive produced by carrier shells (Xenophoridae) as a potential glue for undersea construction & repair work.

Shell shown is the Xenophora (Xenophora) mekranensis konoi Habe. Picture courtesy of: Sharpe Shells (

  • Some countries use powdered shells instead of calcium carbonate to make the liquid clay (called slip) used in the production of ceramics.  This adds a different effect to the finished product.

     12. Shell Collecting:


  It is man's inborn nature to collect, whether it be rocks, shells, coins, stamps, cars, or baseball cards. We all collect. We always have. It's part of being human. We find looking for, sorting, identifying, cataloguing, and trading of items we find dear to us, and quite satisfying.

     There are almost as many reasons for collecting shells as there people collecting them: many people simply admire the endless beauty and variety of shells (a large collection can have up to 30,000 species!!), while others collect more for scientific reasons - there is still a great deal to learn from and about the shells of the world, and well documented collections are of great value to science, even today!! The collection and study of shells, whether by amateurs or professionals, is called Conchology. (Note: There is a good guide to shell collecting at  - everything you need to know, for starters!!.

     If you have other questions, you could send a Note to Ross Mayhew (mailto:, who operates a small "shell dealership", selling shells to collectors who want to have shells from places they can't visit personally (which for most folks is just about everywhere!).

Great Men of the World of Molluscs

In this paper, I will only cover a few of the more important "ALL-TIME GREATS" and their contributions to the world of molluscs - there have been a great many, plenty of them amateurs (i.e., folks who do things just for the love of it, not for payment!)

(They study the shell part of molluscs - their external Skeletons!)

George Eberhard Rumpf (often referred to as Rumphius) (1627-1702) Holland: Rumphius wrote the first large-scale written account of the natural history of South Pacific molluscs. He originated most of the names of the common Pacific shells, as we know them today, and was also the first person to report on the fatal bites of cone shells. What is even more fascinating to some, is that he continued to do good science even after going blind - working only by feel!!

Margaret Cavendish Bentinick, second duchess of Portland (1714-1786) England was an attractive, wealthy lady who had an insatiable taste for collecting shells. She entertained such dignitaries as King George III, Rousseau (French botanist), Captain James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, and George Humphrey (shell dealer). She hired Daniel Solander, the knowledgeable conchologist and student of the great Linnaeus, to curate and prepare a catalogue of her huge, growing collection.

Hugh Cumming (1791-1865) England: his name is almost synonymous with conchology - no man has ever equaled the amount of material nor discovered a larger number of new shells. (nearly 2,000 species). Today, his collection resides in the British Museum of Natural History in London

Philippe Dautzenberg (1849- 1935 ) Belgium: an outstanding conchologist, accumulated rarities and old collections. By the age of 65, he had acquired more than 30,000 species and a magnificent library. His well documented collection is preserved in the Institute Royal des Sciences Naturelles in Brussels

Some of the other great conchologists are

·        Sowerby: (Note: there were actually four Sowerbys (three major, one minor), all from the same family. Some of them also sold shells to collectors, so they were sometimes accused of describing (i.e., naming) new species just to make money from them!  Two of them were illustrators (they drew things very well - in this case, shells!) of considerable skill, and their work fetches a high price to this day.)


Malacologists: (Scientists who study molluscs - bodies and all!)
(Note: Some tricky parts here - so beware!)

Thomas Say (1787-1834) is known as the father of malacology. He did a lot of the initial organizational work ("Taxonomy") on how various species of molluscs are related to each other, and also described many species in the process.

Dr. Martin Lister, (mid 1800s ) England Physician: Dr. Lister's great work Historia Conchyliorum, consisting of a thousand engraved plates of world-wide species, was for years the only reliable source of illustration for most species.

Johann Chemnitz (late 1700s ) Denmark clergyman: wrote eight enormous volumes on the shells of the world. His beautiful colored plates, long and accurate descriptions, attention to locality data, when he had it, and classification were a great stimulus to others in the field.

Henry August Pilsbry (1862-1957) USA: produced superior research for seventy-five years at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He described over 3,000 species and genera, and for some time also served as the editor of the Nautilus, America's oldest mollusc journal.

R. Tucker Abbott (1919 - 1995):  This remarkable man was one of the "bridges" between the old and the new schools of Malacology.  His nearly unbelievable productivity (he founded and edited the journals Johnsonia and Indo-Pacific Molluscs, published a large number of books both for Malacologists and Conchologists of all sorts, described many species, founded the Bailey-Matthews Shell museum, taught and supervised graduate Students for many years......) was only matched by his generosity of spirit and the keen interest he took in all aspects of Conchology in the United States: Tucker Abbott, Ruth Turner, Jim Harasewych, A.H. Verrill and Bill Clench, are largely responsible for the renaissance and transformation of the study of Molluscs (in North America) in the latter half of our century, and Tucker, along with such other notable authors as Phillip Dance and Percy Morris, was instrumental in preventing shell-collecting in North America from declining into obscurity, by providing a wealth of affordable, largely non-scientific shell identification literature. For a great Biography, see Lynn Scheu's article on the COA website. (

Some other great malacologists were:

  • Georges Cuvier (1769-1850) France
  • H. M. de Blainville (1777-1850) France
  • Comte de Lamarck (1744-1829) France  (Note:  Lamarck was an exceptional scientist - a true pioneer in many areas.  He is unfortunately most widely known for one of his theories which was proven wrong - he hypothesized that animals and plants could pass on to their offspring characteristics they acquired during their lifetime, - in effect, an early version of the theory of Evolution!  For example, if a supposed ancestor of the giraffe had a short neck, but found that leaves on trees were good to eat, according to Lamark's theory, if the animal kept reaching up and stretching to reach higher leaves, he might stretch his neck, and would pass this characteristic along to his offspring.  Over time, each generation would have a longer neck, until the modern giraffe was reached!  This was proven wrong when the laws of genetics were discovered - only mutations can be transmitted to the next generation - not "acquired characteristics"!!)
  • Gerard Paul Deshayes (1796-1875) France
  • Edger Albert Smith (1847-1916) England
  • August A. Gould (1805) USA
  • W. G. Binney (1833-1909) USA
  • William Healy Dall (1845-1927) USA - he described a large portion of the molluscan fauna of the Pacific Northwest of N. America.
  • Charles Hedley (1862-1926) Australia
  • A. Hirase (mid twentieth century) Japan

     A good number of very skilled malacologists are of course alive and hard at work today (there are many more species to be described than have already been found so far, and DNA and advanced dissection work are revising our taxonomic understanding - sometimes radically!).  Some of these will be covered in an upcoming addition to this section. Meanwhile, I would appreciate any information that would help in this task! (Contact me"


Kingdom of the Seashell
R. Tucker Abbot: Dupont Chair of Malacology, Delaware Museum of Natural History
Crown Publishers Second printing, 1975

Shells & Shell Collecting
S. Peter Dance, University of California
Press, Berkely & Los Angeles, 1966

Spirals from the Sea: An Anthropological Look at Shells
Jane Fearer Safer and Franchises McLaughlin Gill 
published by Clarkson N Potter, Inc/Publishers, 1982

The Romance of Shells in Nature and Art
Louise Allderdice Travers 
Avenel Books a div. of Crown Publishers

The Shell: Gift of the Sea
Hugh and Margaret Stix & R. Tucker Abbott 
Abradale Pree/Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1984

A Conchological Iconography
edited by Conch Books 
Kurt Kreipl & Guido T. Poppe, 1999

Encarta 98 Encyclopedia
CD - Microsoft, 1998.

Shells: An Illustrated Guide to a Timeless and Fascinating World
Mary Saul 
Doubleday & Company, Inc. New York 1974

Shell Shock: Conchological Curiosities
Patrick Mauries 
Thames & Hudson Ltd., London 1994

     Personal Thanks

I would like to personally thank the following members of the CONCH-L List for their invaluable input of information and help in compiling this paper:

Paul Monfils, USA.  Thank you for providing so many beautiful pictures of shells for this article.

Lynn Scheu, USA, for her most generous gift of time and skill in proofreading.
Ross Mayhew, Canada, was a great help in the development of this paper. His ideas, support, and encouragement were most useful! 

Dan & Hiromi Yoshimoto, USA: Some wonderful input, including a whole raft of spelling mistakes!!

Bruce Livett, Australia (Cone toxins Researcher) 

Barbara Haviland, USA (she and her husband Frank are experts in the Scallop family (Pectinidae)

Amy Edwards, USA 

Kate Clark, Ecuador
Moshe Erlendor, Israel / Iceland 

Vicky Wall, USA 

Cadee M.C., Netherlands 

Lucia Gutierrez, Hawaii, USA

Patrick Draeger, USA 

Emilio Lopez Hernandez, Venezuela 

Michael Reagin, USA

     Links Used

Links to WWW Sites Used

The following web sites were used "by permission" of the owner or by were covered by other disclaimers:  Many of these links may change or even go completely off the web. I will attempt to keep them updated as best I can.

If a web page ceases to exist, I will leave the original URL in scrip; however it will not be linked!

  • The Conchologist's Information Network (

  • "Molluscs and Man" by Amy Edwards (

  • Painkillers from the Sea by Graeme O'Neil permission by Dr. Bruce Livett

  • "Of Molluscs and Men": Marine Biological Laboratory Pamela Clapp Hinkle
    ( )

  • Western Fisheries Magazine Archive: Rae Burrows

  • Escargot & Helciculture: Philippe Thomas

  • The Harmful Algae Page: Judy

  • Solutions To Avoid Red Tide: Jeremy Warmouth

  • Kanehoa Company:  R. Mathias Hantzen

  • P'til Tekhelet : Great educational site!! (

  • The Seashell Instrument Site: is a great place to learn how to make your own shell trumpets and other instruments! (

  • Ancient Harvests: University of Delaware Ginger Pinholster

  • FYI:
    • For more Molluscan information, go to Man and Mollusc's Links Index Page!


Conch Daggers

Comments by Henk K. Mienis


Conchdaggers i.e. pointed weapons made out of the shell of Strombus in general and Strombus gigas in particular.
Robert G. Moolenbeek has traced some archaeological records concerning this subject from the Antilles (in press in the C.B. Ned. Malac. Ver., which is the newsletter of the Dutch Malacological Society).
Today I came across an article dealing with Strombus gigas on the internet referring to weapons made out of the Queenconch in Miami some 3000 years ago. In Sea-Stats No. 14 - Queen Conch (, V.N. Stewart writes:
".....A Miami excavation had evidence of use of conch 3000 years ago. The shells were widely used as cooking pots and parts of shells were used as chisels, knives, scrapers and hooks, as well as important personal adornment items, such as necklaces, pendants, earrings and buttons. They were also used as ceremonial items and "trumpets".
The exact source for this information is not clear from the list of references.