If you have ever walked the beaches along the Western Atlantic Coasts of America or the Gulf of Mexico, south to the Caribbean and Central America, and let's not forget the Indo-Pacific Regions, all of which are sub-tropical to tropical, you have likely come across various seashells, lovely and irresistible to pick up!
Important Note: Many species of both bivalves and univalves are protected and threatened because of over fishing, over collecting or careless destruction by beach-goers, tourists or fisheries.
The following photo essay features the univalves, otherwise called gastropods or sea snails which have a single shell, typically spiraled. All for the curious collector with easy to follow descriptions for identification while also providing some interesting facts and beautiful photographs from a variety of shells in my personal collection of 45 varieties!
Note: When identifying shells, location is important along with the obvious features such as shape, textures, markings and color. Size is important as well, but keep in mind, sometimes you may have a juvenile that hasn't reached full size.
1. Queen Conch Snail
Queen Conch, Strombus, gigas, (pronounced "conk") is a tropical marine mollusk sea snail with a spiral shell that may bear numerous knobs, a long spire and have a flared lip. Conchs, as with all sea snails, have a well-developed head with eyes, tentacles and a mouth; a broad muscular foot for crawling, and a soft body mass which is protected by their shell.
Big, heavy and impressive shells house a tasty animal known as the Queen Conch, which may find itself loved out of existence. They are eagerly collected by shell enthusiasts and fisheries alike, but it is a protected species in the U.S. State of Florida. Whether dead or alive, collectors are warned to keep hands off. Their slow growth rate, occurrence in shallow waters and late maturation make the Queen Conch particularly susceptible to over-fishing.
Much has been written about this species with its beauty, size, many uses and popularity. They are the ones you see in the movies of native islanders blowing into to call on the Gods, or little kids putting them up to their ears to listen to the call of the ocean.
Look for a sharp apex and thick triangular knobs on the whorls. The outside is brownish yellow with a bright pink opening and lip. Only as adults, the lips of the shell are thick and flared. But their large size may be the best identifying feature.
They feed on algae and other plant material distinguishing them from the carnivorous whelks or helmet sea snails.
- Size: Up to 8-12 inches, 15-31 centimeters; living up to 40 years
- Habitat: Sandy, shallow, warm waters in coral reefs or sea grass beds
- Range: Western Atlantic Coast from Florida, west throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico Zone and Greater Caribbean Tropical Zone, and as far south as Venezuela
Shell Hunting Subtropical-Tropical Regions of Western Atlantic USA, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and South American Coasts
2. Florida Fighting Conch
The Florida Fighting Conch, Strombus alatus, is another favorite among collectors and one of the more common finds along the Western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines.
Look for an attractive thick orange-brown conch with darker brown blotches, sometimes light tan blotches over creamy white. Knobs may be present on larger whorls. The interior is darker brown with a wide, thick lip bearing a distinct indentation near the posterior end and slight ribs.
They eat algae and other tiny marine plants
- Size: Up to 3-4 inches
- Habitat: Sandy and muddy bottoms in shallow water
- Range: North Carolina to Florida, west to Texas
Jungle Pete Corradino sheds some light why they are called 'Fighting Conch'.
3. Dog Conch or Yellow Conch
Dog Conch or Yellow Conch, Laevistrombus, canarium, better known as Strombus, canarium, is from the family Strombidae, the true conchs. Colored golden brown to yellow sometimes with darker-brown zig-zag pattern. Body is inflated especially at the shoulder, topped with a few spiral grooves and a pointy spire. Has a thick flared outer lip. Interior is white, mature specimens present a metallic gray on the margin of the outer lip.
Although valued as a collectible, is also used as bait because of its heavy "sinkable" weight for fishing nets.
It grazes on algae and detritus (gravel, sand, silt)
Is commonly fished for human consumption.
- Size: Up to 4 in, 10 cm
- Habitat: Sandy bottoms.
- Range: Indo-Pacific from India, Australia, north to Japan
4. Spider Conch
Spider Conch, Lambis lambis, is in the family, Strombidae, the true conchs. A very ornamented species with its flared out lip decorated further with six or seven spiked digits. Males and females differ here with the male showing the three innermost digits shorter and bent towards the posterior, whereas the female demonstrates longer and laterally curved digits. The spikes improves the snails stability and prevents it from toppling over as it hops. Juveniles lack the spikes.
Like many other sea snails, it has large eyes on long stalks, a thick siphon and a curved "operculum" meaning "little lid" attached to a strong foot. This is used by the animal to hop along the surface and as a trap door concealing it into its shell.
The color of the shell is highly variable, with the base being white or cream and often presenting, tan, brown, purplish or bluish-black patches. The interior appears polished and may be pink, orange or purple.
The Spider Conch is another favorite for crafters and collectors.
It thrives on red algae.
- Size: Up to 11.5 in, Average 7 in (29 cm, Average 18 cm)
- Habitat: Mangrove areas, reef flats and coral-rubble in shallow water from low tide levels to depths of 5 m
- Range: Widespread in Indo-Pacific from Africa to Australia, including India, Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia, north to Southern Japan
5. Queen (Emperor) Helmet Snail
Queen Helmet also known as Emperor Helmet, Cassis madagascariensis, may be one of the larger sea snail species, but regardless of the fact, today they are not easy to find due to over collecting.
Heavy, large, triangular, thick lipped and varied, Helmet Shells are used in making cameos. The thick shell and variable colors suit them well for this purpose.
Queen Helmet shells may vary from whitish color to light yellowish brown. Their undersides are darker and have a wide opening with markings that resemble teeth. They feed on sea urchins and sand dollars.
- Size: Up to 12-14 inches 3-5 centimeters
- Habitat: Sandy shallow warm water in coral reefs up to 30 feet deep
- Range: Western Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea regions. The specific name "madagascarensis" literally means "of Madagascar", but this was a misunderstanding of the locality by the original author.
6. Cameo Helmet
The Cameo Helmet, Cypraecassis rufa, also called Bull Mouth, Grinning Mouth or Red Helmet. Thick heavy shells are used in making cameos. Colors may vary from light pinkish to deeper pink with dark stripped markings. The helmets snails are distinguished from the conchs by their flipped up rims along their openings, and short spires. Usually, their knobs along the whorls are blunt. The undersides have markings that resemble teeth and a wide lid bears faint wide stripes. They feed on sea urchins and other echinoderms at night.
- Size: Up to 7.5 in, 19 cm
- Habitat: Tropical sandy coastlines as deep as 40 ft or 12 m
- Range: Indo-Pacific Southeast Africa Coastline to Northern Australia and New Guinea
7. Lightening Whelk
The Lightening Whelk, Busycon contrarium, previously, Sinistrofulgur perversum, is one of the loveliest. This particular species acquired the name "Lightning Whelk" because the white shells of the juveniles have chestnut brown stripes with a zig-zag pattern reminiscent of lightning bolts. Colors fade on older, larger shells. Texas lightening whelks are darker brown than lightening whelks from other locations.
The opening is always on the left holding it so that the spire is at the top. This sets them apart from other univalves. Their shells are elongated with triangular knobs and the opening extends along their entire length.
- Size: Up to 10-15 in, 25- 38 cm
- Habitat: Sandy bottoms in shallow water
- Range: Western Atlantic Coast far North as Cape Cod, south to Florida and west to the Gulf of Mexico
The elegant big whelks that wash up on the Western Atlantic and Gulf Coast beaches are yet another favorite of collectors. When alive, they are edible, especially on European menus. All whelks are predators with a rasping tongue like structure to siphon into mostly clams or scavenged carrion. Near the base of the siphon is a taste/smell receptor that can detect and locate food at a considerable distance.
8. Knobbed Whelk Snail
Knobbed Whelk next to Channeled Whelk
Knobbed Whelk, Busycon, carica, is the second largest species of the "Busycon" Whelks. Distinguishing features, of course, are the protruding knobs or spines along the shoulder of its wide whorl, but they can become worn down by sand and surf, as seen in the example above the video. Their shell opening is right sided and elongated.
As with other whelks, the shell color varies depending on geographic locations: the outer shell ranges from grayish white to tan, while the inner shell ranges from pale yellow to orange.
This animal feeds on clams, oysters, mussels and other bivalves. To feed, the snail uses its foot to hold prey while the lip of its shell chips and pries at the bivalve. Once a big enough hole has opened, the snail inserts its foot and begins to feed.
Historically, Native Americans used the Knobbed Whelk to make their beaded wampum belts in exchange for trade.
They are edible and have lived on Mother Earth for 30 million years!
- Size: Up to 12 in, 30 cm
- Habitat: Sandy tidal zones, but can be found off shore up to 150 ft, 45 m.
- Range: Massachusetts to Florida, west to the Gulf Coast of Georgia
9. Common Northern Whelk Snail
The Common Northern Whelk, Buccinum undatum, has a stout pale shell from white, yellowish or reddish-brown in tone. In life, the outer shell is covered in a bright, yellowish-brown protective cover called periostracum, as with many other marine bivalves and univalves. The spire contains seven to eight whorls. There are wavy folds crossed by numerous prominent spiral lines. The opening is white and broad.
It does not adapt well to life in the intertidal zones. If exposed to air, it may crawl from its shell, risking desiccation.
They are widely eaten sometimes referred to by its French name bulot.
- Size: Up to 3 in, 8 cm
- Habitat: Off shore beyond high watermark in continuous submerges zones
- Range: Preferring colder water widely distributed from North America as far south as New Jersey, west to European Northern Atlantic Coastlines as far north as Iceland
10. Giant Eastern Murex
Murex shells and their kin include over a thousand species, counting the Drills, which have become serious pests in oyster beds. All of this group are carnivores, feeding mainly on bivalves. Their outer shells are heavy, ridged and spiny, and very attractive to collectors.
Giant Eastern Murex also know as, the Giant Atlantic Murex, Hexaplex fulvescens, is uncommon compared to other species of Murex, and as the name suggests, they are big sea snails, the biggest of the Murexes. So to have one in your collection is very lucky. They possess several rows of ridges with glorious protruding spines. Their outer shell may be colored whitish, grayish or pale brown, the aperture is oval with hollow spiny edges.
- Size: Up to 9 in, 23 cm
- Habitat: Most commonly in deeper waters 250 ft, 80 m.
- Range: North Carolina to Cape Canaveral, Florida, west to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico
11. Lace Murex
The Lace Murex, Chicoreus florifer, is highly ornamental with up to 7 whorls and 10 hollow decorative spines. The colors vary from yellowish, light-brown, or brownish black in mature specimens, to pink or white in young specimens.
The Lace Murex and Apple Murex are very similar, except the Lace Murex has hollow spines along the outer rim of its aperture or opening, lacking in the Apple Murex. Also, the Lace Murex opening is on the smaller side.
- Habitat: Shallow sand and rubble
- Size: Up to 3 1/2 in, 7 cm
- Range: North Carolina, south to Florida, the Caribbean and the Bahamas, west through the Gulf of Mexico
12. Apple Murex
Apple Murex, Phyllonotus pomum, is mostly tan or light brown with darker brown markings and white highlights. The shell is thick and the surface is rough and ridged with wrinkly columns. The aperture is glossy and either white, tan, or peach.
The samples above are immature and the spires are not as pronounced as with an adult size. The sample above measures to only about an inch and a half.
- Size: Up to 5 in, 13 cm
- Habitat: Shallow bottoms to deeper waters up to 70 ft, 20 m, burying themselves during low tide
- Range: North Carolina to Florida, far south as Brazil, west through the Gulf of Mexico.
13. Pink Throat Murex
Pink Throat Murex, Hexaplex erythrostomus, has a light tan shell with yellowish brown patches and a number of blunt spines along several ridges. The aperture is large and round and bends backwards over the outer shell. The interior is usually pink and glossy, but sometimes it's white depending on its location and especially maturity level, only adults have the deep pink.
- Size: 3-6 in, 7-15 cm
- Habitat: Moderately shallow water
- Range: Western Mexico, south as far as Peru and parts of lower Gulf of Mexico
14. Atlantic Oyster Drill
Atlantic Oyster Drill, Urosalpinx cinerea, related to the family of Murexes, have sturdy, longitudinal ribbed shells with prominent spires. Color is grayish, brownish over dull white, sometimes yellow or light brown. Outer lip is slightly thick inside.
A vicious enemy to oysters, has the ability to bore a hole and suck out the oyster; a serious problem in commercial oyster beds, and it has been accidentally introduced well outside its natural range. Is non-edible.
- Size: 1/2 to 1 in, 1.25 to 2.5 cm
- Habitat: Intertidal rock and oyster beds as far as 25 feet
- Range: Nova Scotia to Southern Florida
15. Florida Rock Snail
Florida Rock Snail, Stramonita haemastoma floridana, is in the Murex family and may be also called an Oyster Drill, Red-Mouthed Rock Shell or the Florida Dog Winkle. It has a solid elongated shell with tall spire. It's sculptured with longitudinal ribs sometimes with nodules on the shoulder and weaker concentric growth lines.
Colors variable creamy white with brown, tan or blue gray bands sometimes creating a checkered almost plaid-like pattern. Inner most interior is deep brown or purple outlined with orange and often grooved on the outer lip.
Rock Oysters are known to feed on other Oysters and Mussels and may be able to attack those prey in groups, to maximize feeding efficiency. Their feeding behaviors include chipping away at the shell margins of prey using their teeth (called radula) and acid secretions.
- Size: Up to 4 1/2 in, 11 cm
- Habitat: Rock beds, oyster beds
- Range: Widespread Western Atlantic from North Carolina to Florida and Caribbean far south to Brazil. Also Eastern Atlantic European Waters and Mediterranean Northern Tip of Africa.
Incredible closeup footage of how a snail attacks and eats. You'll never look at snails quite the same way after viewing!
16. Triton's Trumpet - Giant Triton Snail
Triton's Trumpet also called Giant Triton, Charonia tritonis, is a very large species of sea snail; one of the biggest mollusks in the coral reef named (Triton) the son of Greek God of the sea (Poseidon).
Tan with darker brown markings, Triton's Trumpet is heavily beaded with a pointed spire and large body whorl with spiral shelves. Interior opening has notched edging and is white.
It's one of the few animals that feeds on the Crown of Thorns Starfish, a large and destructive species having killed extensive areas of coral on the Great Barrier Coral Reef of Australia. This Triton has a reputation of tearing apart the starfish to pieces with its file-like radula.
A decorative treasure sometimes modified to a trumpet such as the Japanese "horagai".
It's a protected species in Australia and other countries such as India but is illegally traded and found in shops around the world and on the internet for sale!
- Size: Up to 2 Ft., 60 cm (my sample is juvenile, only about 6 inches - 15cm)
- Habitat: Coral reef
- Range: Widespread Indo-Pacific from Red Sea to Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Mediterranean from East Africa to Hawaii
17. Girdled Triton Snail
Girdled Triton, Linatella caudata, robust figure is sculptured with small spines arranged along deeper cut ribs. The tail is turned to one side. Color varies with white background, light-gray and brownish markings, or rarely greenish.
- Size: Up to 2 3/4 in, 7 cm
- Habitat: Seagrass meadows on soft substrates
- Range: This species is very widespread (but uncommon). In the Western Atlantic from South Carolina to Brazil, across to the Canary Islands. It is also present in European waters, in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean along Tanzania and in the Indo-Western Pacific as far north as southern Japan.
18. Banded Tulip Snail
The Banded Tulip, Fasciolaria lilium, is whitish to orange-yellow. The dark distinct spiral lines are less crowded than with their relatives, the True Tulip. They are shaped like a spindle which opens in the middle and forms a pointy spire on the ends. They prey on other mid-size gastropods.
- Size: 3-4 in, 7-10 cm
- Habitat: Sandy or muddy shallow water less than 100 ft, 30 m
- Range: North Carolina, south to Florida, west to the Texas Gulf
19. Alphabet Cone Snail
Alphabet Cone, Conus spurius, are medium size and obviously shaped like a cone as with all the cones from which there are about a dozen species in the Florida corals and rocks. The opening lip is narrow and extends the length of the outer shell.They are creamy-white with rows of reddish brown splotches, some resembling letters of the alphabet. Top of cone or spire has a small pointy apex.
All cone snail stings are toxic, always use caution when collecting their shells.
- Size: Up to 3 in, 8 cm
- Habitat: Sandbars and grassy flats in shallow water
- Range: North Carolina to Florida
20. Nutmeg Snail
The Nutmeg Snail, Cancellaria reticulate, is small and resembles the shape of a nutmeg seed with the same roughness and texture. Background of white with various shades of brown arranged in spiral bands and longitudinal stripes. Both ends are pointy. It's a vegetable feeder.
- Size: Up to 1 3/4 in, 3 cm
- Habitat: Grassy bottoms or kelp beds
- Range: North Carolina around Florida to West Coast, mostly around Cape Sable at Florida Southern tip
21. Cuming's Cerith Snail
Cuming's Cerith, Pseudovertagus aluco, an Indo-Pacific species, is very similar to The Dark Cerith or Florida Cerith (shown below) so I have decided to use it for comparison.
- A little note about Ceriths, you may find them scurrying around in shallow ocean lagoons, but look more closely. There may be a hermit crab occupying it, so when you collect the long slender Ceriths, make sure they are empty of living creatures.
- About 30 species of Ceriths are found on North American coasts in warm or temperate waters. They feed on mostly waste matter or algae and people like to put them in aquariums as cleaners.
22. Florida (Dark) Cerith Snail
Comparing Florida (Dark) Cerith to Cuming's Cerith Snail
Florida Dark Cerith, Cerithium atratum, After observing the above two Cerith species, I'm sure you can see their similarities and differences. One main difference is in their size, which you can't tell by the photos. The Florida Cerith, is much smaller, about 1 1/2 inches while the Indo-Pacific Cuming's species is 3 1/2 inches. Both are at full adult size. The Florida species is lighter tan with stripped bands while the Cuming's has a more speckled pattern. Also, the Cumings has distinct knobs while the Dark Cerith is beady. The point is when you're identifying species, you learn to be a much more careful observer. One can be easily mistaken for another.
- Habitat: Both species like sand-bars at the high tide level, sandy shallows or coral rubble
- Range: The Dark Cerith is found mainly from North Carolina to Florida and west to Texas
- The Cuming's Cerith can be found from a wide range in the Indo-Pacific Region from the Eastern Africa Coast to Philippines and Northern Australia.
23. Common (Atlantic) Auger Snail
The Common or Atlantic Auger also called Eastern Auger, Terebra dislocata, can be colored from gray to tannish-white. The Augers are relatives of the Cones.This is the most abundant of the four species of auger snails living on the sandy shores of Southwest Florida. They have a slender triangular shape, with a small aperture and a very long spire. They feed on small crustaceans, clams and worms.
You wouldn't want to pick up a live auger because they have a venomous stinger like teeth to subdue their prey and the flesh may also be poisonous depending on the species.
During mating season, they may be observed in populated swarms.
- Size: Up to 2 1/2 in, 6 cm
- Habitat: Muddy sand or sand flats in intertidal shallows up to 25 feet.
- Range: Florida to Texas
24. Adam's Miniature Cerith
Adam's Miniature Cerith, Seila adamsi, has a slender conical shell with flat whorls sculptured with 3 strong, spiral cords distributed evenly on whorls. Typically colored orange to dark brown.
- Size: 1/2 in, 13 mm
- Habitat: Shallow waters
- Range: Massachusetts to Florida south to West Indies
25. Boring Turret Snail
Towering Boring Turret Snail, Turritella acropora, is not as commonly found because it remains off shore farther than most. Colors vary from whitish tan, with pinkish and orange-brown irregular mottling. Adults may have up to 15 whorls that bulge with fine concentric lines.
The Turritelline gastropods are moderately diverse and abundant.
- Size: Up to 4 in, 10 cm
- Habitat: Off shore moderately shallow waters
- Range: North Carolina, Florida, much of the Gulf Coast, south to Cuba and Bahamas
26. Rough Turban
Rough Turban, Turbo setosus - Usually green with brown patches and a pearly white aperture. Texture is beaded.The top spire is acute and pointed
- Size: Up to 3 in, 8 cm
- Range: Indian Ocean east to Northern shores of Australia
General Info About Turbo Snails For Five Samples Above and Below
Turbo Snails are found in tropical regions around the world. They were in existence as early as the Upper Cretaceous period approximately 100 millions years ago.
- Empty turbo snail shells are a favorite choice of hermit crabs and favorites among collectors who love to polish them beautifully and put them on the market for sale.
- All turbo shells have round to semi-circular apertures with inflated, thick shells topped with swirling spires, giving them the appearance resembling a turban (a wrapped around headdress).
- Most young snails feed on algae, while adults feed on seaweed.
- Majority of species live in shallow warm coastal waters and reefs up to 90 ft . . .(30 m) deep
27. Wavy Turban
Wavy Turban, Turbo fluctuosus - Colors variable from olive, green, brown or grayish with varying patterns. Aperture is white
- Size: Up to 3 1/2 in, 9 cm
- Range: Pacific Ocean from Southern California farther south to Western Mexican Coastline and Peru, further west to Galapagos Islands
28. Gold Mouth Turban
Gold Mouth Turban, Turbo chrysostomus - A rough textured shell, color patterned brownish or white, marbled with chestnut to red flecks. Of course, the best way to be sure of its identity is its richly golden, shiny aperture.
- Size: Up to 3 in, 8 cm
- Range: Indian Ocean off Madagascar Basin. Also Western Pacific Philippines south to and Northern and Western Australia
29. Silver Mouth Turban
Silver Mouth Turban, Turbo argyrostoma - Usually green with brown markings and (as with most turbos) varying ornamental patterns. Sometimes the apex is red, others, goldish. The silver glossy aperture is a dead give away for this species. Collectors especially love to polish this beauty and put them up for sale!
- Size: Up to 3 in, 8 cm
- Range: Indo-Pacific Region