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A seashell or sea shell, also known simply as a shell, is a hard, protective outer layer created by an

animal that lives in the sea. The shell is part of the body of the animal. Empty seashells are often found
washed up on beaches by beachcombers. The shells are empty because the animal has died and the soft
parts have been eaten by another animal or have decomposed.

A seashell is usually the exoskeleton of an invertebrate (an animal without a backbone), and is typically
composed of calcium carbonate or chitin. Most shells that are found on beaches are the shells of marine
mollusks, partly because these shells are usually made of calcium carbonate, and endure better than
shells made of chitin.

Apart from mollusk shells, other shells that can be found on beaches are those of barnacles, horseshoe
crabs and brachiopods. Marine annelid worms in the family Serpulidae create shells which are tubes
made of calcium carbonate cemented onto other surfaces. The shells of sea urchins are called "tests",
and the moulted shells of crabs and lobsters are exuviae. While most seashells are external, some
cephalopods have internal shells.

Seashells have been used by humans for many different purposes throughout history and pre-history.
However, seashells are not the only kind of shells; in various habitats, there are shells from freshwater
animals such as freshwater mussels and freshwater snails, and shells of land snails.


When the word "seashells" refers only to the shells of marine mollusks, then studying seashells is part of
conchology. Conchologists or serious collectors who have a scientific bias are in general careful not to
disturb living populations and habitats: even though they may collect a few live animals, most
responsible collectors do not often over-collect or otherwise disturb ecosystems.

The study of the entire molluscan animal (as well as the shell) is known as malacology; a person who
studies mollusks is known as a malacologist.


Seashells are commonly found in beach drift, which is natural detritus deposited along strandlines on
beaches by the waves and the tides. Shells are very often washed up onto a beach empty and clean, the
animal having already died.
Empty seashells are often picked up by beachcombers. However, the majority of seashells which are
offered for sale commercially have been collected alive (often in bulk) and then killed and cleaned,
specifically for the commercial trade.[1] This type of large-scale exploitation can sometimes have a
strong negative impact on local ecosystems, and sometimes can significantly reduce the distribution of
rare species.

Molluscan seashells

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Seashells hand-picked from beach drift in North Wales at Shell Island near Harlech Castle, Wales,
bivalves and gastropods, March/April 1985

Main article: Mollusc shell

The word seashell is often used to mean only the shell of a marine mollusk. Marine mollusk shells that
are familiar to beachcombers and thus most likely to be called "seashells" are the shells of marine
species of bivalves (or clams), gastropods (or snails), scaphopods (or tusk shells), polyplacophorans (or
chitons), and cephalopods (such as nautilus and spirula). These shells are very often the most commonly
encountered, both in the wild, and for sale as decorative objects.

Marine species of gastropods and bivalves are more numerous than land and freshwater species, and
the shells are often larger and more robust. The shells of marine species also often have more sculpture
and more color, although this is by no means always the case.

In the tropical and sub-tropical areas of the planet, there are far more species of colorful, large, shallow
water shelled marine mollusks than there are in the temperate zones and the regions closer to the

Although there are a number of species of shelled mollusks that are quite large, there are vast numbers
of extremely small species too, see micromollusks.

Not all mollusks are marine. There are numerous land and freshwater mollusks, see for example snail
and freshwater bivalves. In addition, not all mollusks have an external shell: some mollusks such as some
cephalopods (squid and octopuses) have an internal shell, and many mollusks have no shell, see for
example slug and nudibranch.


Single valves of the bivalve Senilia senilis, plus two gastropods, washed up on the beach at Fadiouth,

Bivalves are often the most common seashells that wash up on large sandy beaches or in sheltered
lagoons. They can sometimes be extremely numerous. Very often the two valves become separated.

There are more than 15,000 species of bivalves that live in both marine and freshwater. Examples of
bivalves are clams, scallops, mussels, and oysters. The majority of bivalves consist of two identical shells
that are held together by a flexible hinge. The animal's body is held protectively inside these two shells.
Bivalves that do not have two shells either have one shell or they lack a shell altogether. The shells are
made of calcium carbonate and are formed in layers by secretions from the mantle. Bivalves, also known
as pelecypods, are mostly filter feeders; through their gills, they draw in water, in which is trapped tiny
food particles. Some bivalves have eyes and an open circulatory system. Bivalves are used all over the
world as food and as a source of pearls. The larvae of some freshwater mussels can be dangerous to fish
and can bore through wood.

Shell Beach, Western Australia, is a beach which is entirely made up of the shells of the cockle Fragum


Numerous Turritella gastropod shells washed up on a beach at Playa Grande, Costa Rica

Certain species of gastropod seashells (the shells of sea snails) can sometimes be common, washed up
on sandy beaches, and also on beaches that are surrounded by rocky marine habitat.


Loose valves or plates from Chiton tuberculatus from the beachdrift on the southeast coast of Nevis,
West Indies

Chiton plates or valves often wash up on beaches in rocky areas where chitons are common. Chiton
shells, which are composed of eight separate plates and a girdle, usually come apart not long after
death, so they are almost always found as disarticulated plates. Plates from larger species of chitons are
sometimes known as "butterfly shells" because of their shape.

Cuttlebone from a Sepia sp.

Shells of 3 species of Nautilus

Only a few species of cephalopods have shells (either internal or external) that are sometimes found
washed up on beaches.

Some cephalopods such as Sepia, the cuttlefish, have a large internal shell, the cuttlefish bone, and this
often washes up on beaches in parts of the world where cuttlefish are common.

Spirula spirula is a deep water squid-like cephalopod. It has an internal shell which is small (about 1 in or
24 mm) but very light and buoyant. This chambered shell floats very well and therefore washes up easily
and is familiar to beachcombers in the tropics.

Nautilus is the only genus of cephalopod that has a well-developed external shell. Females of the
cephalopod genus Argonauta create a papery egg case which sometimes washes up on tropical beaches
and is referred to as a "paper nautilus".

The largest group of shelled cephalopods, the ammonites, are extinct, but their shells are very common
in certain areas as fossils.

Molluscan seashells used by other animals

Empty molluscan seashells are a sturdy, and usually readily available, "free" resource which is often
easily found on beaches, in the intertidal zone, and in the shallow subtidal zone. As such they are
sometimes used second-hand by animals other than humans for various purposes, including for
protection (as in hermit crabs) and for construction.


Carrier shells in the family Xenophoridae are marine shelled gastropods, fairly large sea snails. Most
species of xenophorids cement a series of objects to the rim of their shells as they grow. These objects
are sometimes small pebbles or other hard detritus. Very often shells of bivalves or smaller gastropods
are used, depending on what is available on the particular substrate where the snail itself lives. It is not
clear whether these shell attachments serve as camouflage, or whether they are intended to help
prevent the shell sinking into a soft substrate.
An ocellated (spotted) octopus using a clamshell as a shelter

Small octopuses sometimes use an empty shell as a sort of cave to hide in, or hold seashells around
themselves as a form of protection like a temporary fortress.


Marine hermit crab Diogenes pugilator, using a shell of the dog whelk Nassarius reticulatus

Almost all genera of hermit crabs use or "wear" empty marine gastropod shells throughout their
lifespan, in order to protect their soft abdomens, and in order to have a strong shell to withdraw into if
attacked by a predator. Each individual hermit crab is forced to find another gastropod shell on a regular
basis, whenever it grows too large for the one it is currently using.

Some hermit crab species live on land and may be found quite some distance from the sea, including
those in the tropical genus Coenobita.


Main article: Conchology

There are numerous popular books and field guides on the subject of shell-collecting. Although there are
a number of books about land and freshwater mollusks, the majority of popular books emphasize, or
focus exclusively on, the shells of marine mollusks. Both the science of studying mollusk shells and the
hobby of collecting and classifying them are known as conchology. The line between professionals and
amateur enthusiasts is often not well defined in this subject, because many amateurs have contributed
to, and continue to contribute to, conchology and the larger science of malacology. Many shell
collectors belong to "shell clubs" where they can meet others who share their interests. A large number
of amateurs collect the shells of marine mollusks, and this is partly because many shells wash up empty
on beaches, or live in the intertidal or sub-tidal zones, and are therefore easily found and preserved
without much in the way of specialized equipment or expensive supplies. Some shell collectors find their
own material and keep careful records, or buy only "specimen shells", which means shells which have
full collecting data: information including how, when, where, in what habitat, and by whom, the shells
were collected. On the other hand, some collectors buy the more widely available commercially
imported exotic shells, the majority of which have very little data, or none at all. To museum scientists,
having full collecting data (when, where, and by whom it was collected) with a specimen is far more
important than having the shell correctly identified. Some owners of shell collections hope to be able to
donate their collection to a major natural history or zoology museum at some point, however, shells
with little or no collecting data are usually of no value to science, and are likely not to be accepted by a
major museum. Apart from any damage to the shell that may have happened before it was collected,
shells can also suffer damage when they are stored or displayed. For an example of one rather serious
kind of damage see Byne's disease.

Shell clubs

There are a number of clubs or societies which consist of people who are united by a shared interest in
shells. In the US, these clubs are more common in southerly coastal areas, such as Florida and California,
where the marine fauna is rich in species.


Seashells are usually identified by consulting general or regional shell-collecting field guides, and specific
scientific books on different taxa of shell-bearing mollusks (monographs) or "iconographies" (limited
text – mainly photographs or other illustrations). (For a few titles on this subject in the US, see the list of
books at the foot of this article.) Identifications to the species level are generally achieved by examining
illustrations and written descriptions, rather than by the use of Identification keys, as is often the case in
identifying plants and other phyla of invertebrates. The construction of functional keys for the
identification of the shells of marine mollusks to the species level can be very difficult, because of the
great variability within many species and families. The identification of certain individual species is often
very difficult, even for a specialist in that particular family. Some species cannot be differentiated on the
basis of shell character alone.

Numerous smaller and more obscure mollusk species (see micromollusk) are yet to be discovered and
named. In other words, they have not yet been differentiated from similar species and assigned
scientific (binomial) names in articles in journals recognized by the International Commission on
Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). Large numbers of new species are published in the scientific literature
each year. There are currently an estimated 100,000 species of mollusks worldwide.

Non-marine "seashells"

A group of purchased (mostly marine) shells includes the shell of a large tropical land snail (upper right),
and a shiny freshwater apple snail shell (center)

The term seashell is also applied loosely to mollusk shells that are not of marine origin, for example by
people walking the shores of lakes and rivers using the term for the freshwater mollusk shells they
encounter. Seashells purchased from tourist shops or dealers may include various freshwater and
terrestrial shells as well. Non-marine items offered may include large and colorful tropical land snail
shells, freshwater apple snail shells, and pearly freshwater unionid mussel shells. This can be confusing
to collectors, as non-marine shells are often not included in their reference books.

Cultural significance
Further information: Molluscs in culture

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Main article: shell money

Seashells have been used as a medium of exchange in various places, including many Indian Ocean and
Pacific Ocean islands, also in North America, Africa and the Caribbean.

1742 drawing of shells of the money cowry, Monetaria moneta

The most common species of shells to be used as currency have been Monetaria moneta, the "money
cowry",[2][3] and certain dentalium tusk shells, used in North Western North America for many

Many of the tribes and nations all across the continent of Africa have historically used the cowry as
their media of exchange. The cowry circulated, historically, alongside metal coins and goods, and foreign
currencies. Being durable and easy to carry the cowry made a very favorable currency.

Some tribes of the indigenous peoples of the Americas used shells for wampum and hair pipes.[4] The
Native American wampum belts were made of the shell of the quahog clam.


Seashells have often been used as tools, because of their strength and the variety of their shapes.

Giant clams (Family Tridacnidae) have been used as bowls, and when big enough, even as bathtubs
and baptismal fonts.

Melo melo, the "bailer volute", is so named because Native Australians used it to bail out their

Many different species of bivalves have been used as scrapers, blades, clasps, and other such tools,
due to their shape.
Some marine gastropods have been used for oil lamps, the oil being poured in the aperture of the
shell, and the siphonal canal serving as a holder for the wick.


Because seashells are in some areas a readily available bulk source of calcium carbonate, shells such as
oyster shells are sometimes used as soil conditioners in horticulture. The shells are broken or ground
into small pieces in order to have the desired effect of raising the pH and increasing the calcium content
in the soil.