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

By Avril Bourquin, Ross Mayhew and many contributors (see Personal Thanks)
December 1999

Elegant Margin Shell
(Marginella elegans (Gmelin, 1791))
(found in SE Asia - Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.)


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 and their future potential 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 subject.  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 Bourqui


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

Great Men of the mollusc world
Personal Thanks


1.  Food:

Along the world's miles of coastline, man has always had a readily 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 marine molluscs become very poisonous due to an algal bloom known as "red tide" The molluscs filter feed on these tiny animal-like plants (called "dinoflagellates" which produce 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.
(Note: Algae are a diverse group of organisms including many which are one-celled and can swim like animals, and all the many kinds of seaweed.)

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 are also eaten. France alone consumes 5 million pounds of escargot (a large tree-snail, Helix aspersa Moller) every year.

Here are some more examples of molluscs commonly eaten:

Only a few molluscs are actually poisonous. A wide variety of molluscs end up in cooking pots around the world every day.- Most of the animals that once created and lived in most ornamental shells sold in stores probably ended up that way!


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:


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:


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:


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:





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


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!)

6. Religion:

Shells have played a central role in religion from prehistoric times on.  Dominating early religious practices, cowry shells (Cypraea) 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 indicate 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:


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 Instrument Site is a great place to learn how to make your own shell trumpets and other instruments!!)In many countries shells have also been tied together or had such things as sand or beads sealed inside them so that they became as sort of rattle 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:

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: -ooshing" sound 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 would only hear the Sounds of Silence!)


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. 

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

Two examples of man using the byproducts of molluscs for decoration or fanch 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).

  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 BC, 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 of Purple.  In the northern Mediterranean, the dye-makers found they could alter the color produced by urinating into the vat! (The priests and nobles who wore the finished product probably never even knew!)).

An example of this is The P'til Tekhelet (i.e., "Biblical Blue"), the Association for the Promotion and Distribution Of Tekhelet 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 Purpura patula pansa Gould, 1853) (the "Wide-mouthed Purpura"), 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 BC

Some molluscs that have been used to dye material are:

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


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:


10. Offshoots:

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


11. Miscellaneous Uses:


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 procuring, 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 are many good guides to shell collecting at on the WWW...If you have other questions, you can contact me and I will get you in touch with a reputable shell person in your country if possible. You may also want to visit my Links Page on Shell Collecting.


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 mollusc - their external Skeletons)

George Eberhard Rumpf (often referred to as Rumphius) (1627-1702) Holland: Rumphius wrote the first extensive 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, such as Cassis cornuta >Note: Linneus (Linne, or "L.") did not make up all the names of the species he described - some, he took over from others.  However, he got the credit for them, since the previous names didn't conform to the set of rules that he set up as the standard for the scientific names of species - a system we still use today!).He 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 of considerable skill, and their work fetches a high price to this day.) 
  • Lovell Augustus Reeve (1814-1865) 
  • Louis Pfeiffer (1815-1877) 
  • Gerard Paul Deshayes (1796-1875) 
  • Phillip Pearsall Carpenter (1819-1877) 
  • Henry Adams (1813-1877) 
  • Rudolf Wilhelm Dunker (1809-1885) 
  • William Harper Pease  (1824-1871) 
  • Rudolf Amandus Philippi (1808-1904) 
  • Otto A. Morch (1828-1878) Denmark 

(Scientists who study molluscs - bodies and all)

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 worldwide 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 nonscientific shell identification literature. For a great Biography, see Lynn Scheu's article on the COA web site. 

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, then 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 Feared 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 


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 not attempt to keep them updated. To get up=to-date web pages on these and many, many more great web sites, Please visit my Internet Resources Pages. ( /links_index.html )

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


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: 


This is a new counter system set up by Globel on
December 01, 2002