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Identifying Seashells from a Beachcombing Collection

I've lived in Flagstaff, AZ, since 2003, where I'm an active member of the Coconino County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and an avid hiker.

Seashells from the Seashore

Seashells from the Seashore

Where (or What) Do These Shells Come From?

As I sit here in my home in the high desert, I can still close my eyes and smell the ocean, even though the closest body of salt water is 350 miles away, across the border in Mexico. Growing up just a mile from the Atlantic Ocean and spending so much of my young life playing in the sand, in the tidal pools and mud flats, and swimming in the sea, that smell and that connection with the ocean never goes away. Neither does my love of beachcombing.

Right here on my desk sits one of several jars of keepsakes from the beaches of my home state of Rhode Island, some from the dozens of times I went beachcombing in Florida, and others from random beaches around the world. And I still come back to Arizona with shells and rocks and other seaside finds to add to my collection each time I visit the coast.

But my love of the ocean and the treasures it deposits on the beach doesn't mean I'm an expert on what I collect. So, I thought it would be fun to learn more about some of these shells in the jar on my desk and to invite you along on my little journey of discovery, as I try to match what I have here with identification information online.

Image Credits: Unless otherwise noted, the photos on this page were taken by me, Deb Kingsbury.

The beachcombing collection on my desk

The beachcombing collection on my desk

Ways to Help Identify Seashells: Things to look at when trying to narrow down the matches

I've collected treasures from many different beaches, but I never put any effort into identifying those shells until now. I just thought they were "really neat" ... and still do! But I've learned there are several things I can do to narrow down the type of shell, rather than just looking through tons of photos to try to find a match.

The first item on this list I would have -- should have -- done at the time I collected the shells, especially the really unusual ones, had I realized how helpful that would be to me now.....

  1. I would have written down where the beach was located (ie. southern Rhode Island on Narragansett Bay; eastern coast of south Florida on an inlet, on the shore of the Red Sea, etc.) along with a description of the type of beach it was, such as rocky, soft white sand, pebbly and so forth. It's also recommended that you write down a description of any vegetation growing in the water near the shore. These details can be very helpful when using shell identification guides.

  2. Decide whether you have a bivalve or a gastropod. That right there will help you narrow your search.

    Bivalves -- as the name implies -- have two parts. Or at least they did before they may have come apart in the ocean or when washed ashore. The two halves of the shell are held together with a "hinge," and the halves are generally round or round-ISH.

    Gastropods on the other hand are cone-shaped or coiled, like periwinkles for example. I used to play with little hermit crabs when I was a kid, and I know those always took up residence in gastropod shells.

  3. Make note of the specific characteristics of the shell, including the shape -- is it conical or fan-shaped or spiral or snail-shaped or wing-shaped or ... what have you?

    Also examine the colors and patterns, with possible patterns being speckles or stripes or zigzags or rows of dots, and so forth. It's helpful to wet the shell, so its colors really stand out.

    And texture is another important characteristic -- does the shell have bumps, ribs, spikes, or any other kind of "relief" that can help you identify it?

  4. Measuring the length and width of a shell can also be helpful, especially in eliminating options when hunting for a match to identify it. Some kinds or species have minimum or maximum sizes, so if your shell is larger than the maximum for a species, you'll know that, nope, this shell isn't that one. Same on the other end of the spectrum.

  5. If you can first figure out what "family" your shell is in, then it's easier to narrow it down from there. I'm learning this AFTER the fact, having tried to identify all of the following shells without first trying to find the family. Oops.

    Here's a Seashell Family Identification Page you can try.

A name in guidebooks I know well....

I have several other National Audubon Society field guides, including one on birds and another on animal tracks, all of which I've liked and used a lot. So I'm assuming the quality is equally as good with this seashell guide, which is very highly rated (except for two people who didn't like the arrangement or the paper quality).

1.) A Common Bivalve on the Atlantic Coast: Like a delicate little folding fan

identifying-seashells-beachcombing-collection

Even without searching, I'm pretty sure this is a type of scallop. Following the guidelines above, I've noted that this shell has the following characteristics...

  • Shape: Uniform fan shape
  • Colors: Predominantly white with pale bands of light brown, blue-ish gray and a creamy color. (The colors are much more distinct when I wet the shell than when it's dry, like you see above.)
  • Texture: Ribbed with a flat "fan handle"
  • Size: 2.5 inches at its widest and same at its longest

Attempting to narrow down the type of scallop shell this is, I looked at "Shells of Aquarius" and their page on Scallop Shells from Around the World, but I don't see anything there that's the right size AND the right shape and colors all in one. So I Googled "Atlantic coast scallop shells" and found a few photos and descriptions of the Atlantic Bay Scallop, which can grow up to about 3 inches and can be the color of mine. They usually have 17 to 20 ribs. Mine has 17. So that's my best guess for this shell.

Did you know?

You can tell how old a scallop is (or was, I suppose) by counting the number of rings on the shell, just like you'd count rings on a tree stump.

2.) Another Common Seashore Find: These look like little slippers to me....

identifying-seashells-beachcombing-collection

Just by typing "slipper shaped shell" into Google search, I found plenty of matches, including this page on the Common Atlantic Slipper Shell or slipper limpet, which is also called a "boat" or "quarterdeck" shell. I've seen these described as toe-nailed shaped, too.

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Hey, that one wasn't too hard to pin down.

I have lots of these slipper shells in a range of sizes. In fact, there are always SO many to choose from on the beaches I usually visit when I go back to the Atlantic coast, I can just sit in one spot by the water, happily sift through them all (so relaxing), and pick out a couple that "speak to me" for whatever reason. I often find slipper shells stuck to each other, with a little one piggy-backing on a larger one.

Speaking of slipper limpet piggy-backing....

Did you know?

When you find a pile of slipper limpets with snails inside, the smaller ones on the top are the boys, the ones on the bottom are are the girls, and the middle snails are in the process of changing sex. Wow, interesting! (I think so anyway.)

I learned that and a lot more on the Encyclopedia of Life Crepidula fornicata (or common slipper shell) page.

3.) A Unique Gastropod: This greenish shell with a mottled pattern looks like snakeskin to me....

identifying-seashells-beachcombing-collection

So, okay, other than the fact that this is a gastropod, how else can I describe this one?

  • Shape: It's spiral with a round opening. You might also say it's snail shaped or shaped like a turban.
  • Color, pattern, texture: It's got greenish-brown and pale yellow bands lengthwise from tip to the base, with small raised bands around it.
  • Size: The shell measures 1-3/4 inch at its longest and about the same at its widest point.

I perused lots of photos and did a bunch of searches, and lo and behold, what finally landed me on a page at Seashell World with very similar shells was the word "turban" -- and these shells actually have that word in their name. In particular, the Goldmouth Turban and the Silvermouth Turban shells look a lot like mine. But they're not found in the Atlantic off the coast of the U.S. They're common in Indo-Pacific waters.

Hm....I may have picked this one up when I visited Israel nearly three decades ago, on the coast of the Red Sea.

Turbo Marmoratus Madagascar

Turbo Marmoratus Madagascar

Did you know?

The largest turban shell of them all is the green turban (Turbo marmoratus), which can grow to 8 inches and is found in the East Indies and Australia.

This is a photo of a large polished Green Turban shell collected in Madagascar.

4.) Another Challenging Shell to Identify: Having a hard time finding this one....

identifying-seashells-beachcombing-collection
  • Length: 2-1/4 inches
  • Color: Light orangy-brown with white
  • Pattern: Lengthwise bands on the main "body" of the shell, tip to tip
  • Texture: Raised horizontal bands with spiny ridges; corrogated "flanks" down the sides.
  • Shape: Like an oval with pointed ends. The opening is eye-shaped with a "spout" at the back end.

Sure would be easier to search if I knew where I'd found this shell. From some hunting around, I thought maybe this was a Nutmeg shell, which comes in a wide variety of colors, textures and sizes, but no matter how many different types I look at, none of them have the "flanks" along the sides like mine does.

So I looked through the Gastropod identification guide from Seashells.org and noticed similarities between the "Bursidae" or Frog shell on page 7 and my shell. The only thing that looked a bit different were the "lips" around the opening.

A Google search for "frog shells Bursidae" brought me to the Bursidae page at IndoPacificShells.com, where I see some that are very much like my shell, especially the Bufonaria rana.

Searching further for that specific shell, I see that the last one on this Gastropods.com page looks nearly identical to mine. So, I believe I have a Common Frog Shell, which may have come from a small collection of shells my dad gave me, which he had from back when he was in the Navy in WWII and traveled to the area of the Indo-Pacific where these shells are found.

Did you know?

The common name "Frog shell" comes from the resemblance to the texture of a frog's warty skin.

5.) A Spiny Mollusk with a Long Tail: One of my favorite little gastropods

identifying-seashells-beachcombing-collection

I'm pretty sure this lucky find came from a Florida beach. I can imagine its little inhabitant proudly dragging its lovely "armor" along the sand at the bottom of the ocean.

In my seashell travels online, I happened upon photos of the Cabrits Murex on the "I Love Shelling" blog, with its spines and long tail, and thought I might have something similar. That one is a lot whiter than mine, which has the brownish bands, but the Cabrits Murex pictured on the Baily-Matthews Shell Museum site does have more brown, and the description says that some shells of this type do have darker bands.

Did you know?

This shell was named after a 19th century shell collector. That tidbit came from Patricia Mitchell's Cabrit's Murex: Pale and Pretty page.

There are 100 genera and more than 700 species of murex in the world. So if I haven't pinpointed mine exactly, I don't feel so bad.

See beautiful photos of tropical murex shells of all sorts of wonderful colors, patterns, shapes and sizes on Shells-of-Aquarius.com.

6.) A Tulip Shell? At first, I thought so....

identifying-seashells-beachcombing-collection

Here's a photo of a Banded Tulip Shell. My shell isn't banded other than on the top, pointed portion, but the shape is very similar. Mine, however, is more rounded at the back end. And looking at other photos of what are called "true tulip shells" or Fasciolaria tulipa, those too have the elongated "tails."

So back to the drawing board.

Do I have a Melampus here? The maximum shell length of an Eastern Melampus is 20mm (or just over 3/4 of an inch), but mine measures 2-1/3 inches in length, so that's not it.

The opening on my shell is elongated, like with these cone shells, but mine is a blunter, rounder shell and doesn't have the horizontal bands.

*sigh* Keep searching...

So, then I Google "smooth light brown gastropod Atlantic" and land back on the very handy Gastropod PDF from the Shell Museum, which has a lot of helpful drawings. I scrolled through and saw a "Melongenidae" that had a very similar shape and smooth texture to my shell. Did another search and found this: See the Volema paradisiaca on the top. Very similar, wouldn't you say? But a Pear Melongena, which can measure between 1.7 and a little over 2 inches -- so just a bit smaller on the upper end than my shell -- is found in SE Africa to Singapore, which aren't places I've been.

But, ooh, I see an almost exact match of my shell in the photo of a mix of Philippine shells (scroll down and you'll see it -- 5th photo) on Shells-of-Aquarius.com. The shells in this mix are from from the Indo-Pacific region, ranging from the Indian Ocean to the southern shores of Japan and northern Australian/New Zealand. This area does include the Red Sea, and I've been there (which is where I probably found that Turban shell above).

More Googling and....

dog conch shell

dog conch shell

Oo! I found it!

It's a Stromus canarium or a "dog conch"!

There's an article on Wikipedia about the dog conch, and I'm almost positive that's what I've got sitting in front of me.

The photo you see here looks exactly like mine.

7.) An Oyster, Me Thinks

identifying-seashells-beachcombing-collection

Given the irregular shape, "oyster" was my guess; although, this one is smoother than I'd expect most oyster shells to be. Most of the images I'm seeing of oyster shells show them as being rather coarse on the outside. But perhaps this one has been "weathered" from washing ashore?