is a "Printer-Friendly Version" of this article; but please be advised,
it is still 20 pages long!
Uses of Shell-Bearing Molluscs - Past, Present & Future
By Avril Bourquin, Ross Mayhew and many contributors (see Personal Thanks)
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.
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
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.
some more examples of molluscs commonly eaten:
- clams (Family Myidae
and Veneridae) - particularly honored in the New England States of the USA!!
Veneridae includes the Quahogs (Mercenaria sp.) that are also to be found
up and down the eastern U.S coastline.
(Family Pectinidae) : 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"
- oysters (Family
Ostreidae): When eaten raw (something I personally can't imagine doing, but
many do!), are often thought to be an aphrodisiac. Oysters can get expensive,
which is probably why there is a recipe known as Oysters Rockerfeller!"
- mussels (Family Mytilidae):
(Note: These are especially prone to poison people
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. During these times, they produce a strong neuro-toxin
(i.e., it affects the nervous system) called "demoic acid", which has killed
many and made millions of people sick: 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 , before going "whole quahog" (a little in-joke - it is a New England
and Atlantic Canadian clam - pronounced "cohog"!) over them.
- whelks (Family
Buccinidae)- VERY big in Japan, and the French pickle them for winter eating!
- cockles (Family
Cardiidae): (Europe & Malaysia) - as in Mary Molone, who cried
"Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o!" (shellfish are one of the few kinds
of food that are kept alive right up to the moment of cooking: this is because
they go bad very quickly, once dead!)
- conchs (Family Strombidae):
produce a large amount of meat, and are especially treasured in the Caribbean
region, where the giant Pink (or Queen) Conch (Strombus gigas Linne)
is farmed extensively. Strombus gigas in the Bahamas is heavily exploited
for food, and along with two species of Cassis (Helmet shells), are
often cultivated in Aquaculture farms.
- squid & octopus:
Particularly popular in Japan (where squid are called "Calamari"), but
they are 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: These are cephalopods - a totally
different Class of molluscs from the gastropods or bivalves. They are
the most developed molluscs, and some are regarded as the most intelligent
invertebrates (animals without a backbone) in the world!) For more information
on the cephalopods, see An Advanced Introduction
to the Molluscs for details on the taxonomy of the Mollusca phylum)
- pen shells (Family
Pinnidae: (Japan and the Mediterranean and occasionally in the USA). They
reportedly taste similar to scallops.
- top Shells (Family
Trochidae: - Caribbean especially, where the West Indian Top Shell (Cittarium
pica Linne, 1758). is considered a delicacy by some of the locals.
- abalone (Haliotis
spp): a well-known Tasty Morsel in many parts of the world. Some rare
species can sell for up to $300 a pound ($760 per Kilo)!
Littorinidae): These, once again, are much loved by the French, who like
their seafood, even when it is very small!
spp)(Caribbean): - Tiny clams, for chowder!
Patellidae, Fissurellidae, and Acmaeidae: Example: "Opihi" (Cellana
exarata (Reeve)) lives on the rocks in Hawaii.
(Class Polyplacophora): several families used for food). Example: Pacific
Northwest Native Americans ate the Giant Pacific Chiton (Cryptochiton
stellari (Middendorf)), which gets up to 300mm (12") long!
shells (Family Turbinidae:( Entire Indo-Pacific, but especially Japan,
where, most of the time, if it comes from the sea, they will eat it!)
shells (Family Cassidae: These can grow very large indeed: a 300 - 350mm
(12-14") Horned helmet (Cassis cornuta Linne, 1758) could feed a
clams (Family Tridacnidae: Although they are rare and protected today, just
imagine the amount of meat a fat, 1300mm (nearly 4 feet!) Giant Clam (Tridacna
gigas (Linne)) could produce! The Bear Paw clam (Hippopus hippopus
Linne) is still popular today in kitchens in the Philippines.
is an important ingredient in the Italian dish of "scungilli marinara",
and is commonly referred to as the Bulot shell.
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!
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 (Cypraea annulus L.,
and C. moneta L.), 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 in 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 oval 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 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.
- Hard clamshells and
whelks were the shells used to make the North American Indian wampum. Eastern
Indians also used the tusk shell Dentalium pretiosum Sowerby (collected
on Vancouver Is.!! (Canada)) Sowerby, 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.
- Beads and other ornaments
made of "Spiny Oyster" shells (Spondylus princeps (Broderip) and
the Panamanian Pearly oyster Pinctada mazatlantica (Hanley) were
traded all over the Andean region.
The Chumash Indians of California also make shell beads from the purple olive
(Olivella) shell that they use as money. The name "Chumash" literally
translates to "bead money makers". You may want to visit their web site.
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 (Charonia) shells.
- Coins from
many countries display a mollusc on one side. Some examples are:
- Sacred chank (Turbinella
pyrum Linne), on the chertrum coin of Bhutan
- Imperial Volute
(Cymbiola imperialis Linne) on the 1 sentimo Philippine coin
- Triton's Trumpet
(Charonia tritonis Linne), on the 5 vatu Vanuatu coin
- Spider Conch (Lambis),
on the 1 cent Tuvalu coin
- Rat Cowrie (Cypraea
stercoraria Linne), on the 1 cedi Ghana coin
- Queen Conch (Strombus
gigas Linne), on the 1 dollar Bahamas silver dollar
- 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!
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 (Ziconotide - still awaiting
- 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
- Ground and
processed oyster shells are used as a calcium supplements both for humans
- Paolin, a drug made
from abalone juice, is an effective inhibitor of penicillin- resistant strains
of bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, Salmonella
typhus and parathyphoid A & B bacteria.
- Oyster juice
has been found to have anti-viral properties, and may be made into a drug
- 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.)
- 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!
- Powdered mother of
pearl is sold in the markets of the Peruvian Andes 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
medicine in Vietnam 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, 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.
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:
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.
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!)
- 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.
- 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
- Building tools: designed
to split and smooth many building and thatching materials such as palm fronds
and bamboo canes.
- 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 "suggestive and 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.
- Weapons such as spearheads
and gouges were made from sharpened and shaped pieces of hard shells such
as the Queen conch (Strombus gigas L.).
- Bailing buckets
made from "bailer" shells (Melo) are still in use by native fisherman
in the South Pacific and Australia today - to bail out their boats!
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.
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.
- Pierodella Francesca
incorporated the scallop shell Pecten jacobaeus L. into his
- 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.
- Bernini made the famous
Triton (designed after the Charonia or trumpet shell) fountain in Rome.
- Michelangelo, and
many other sculptors and artists, (famous or not!) used shell images
and forms in their works - why? Because shells are beautiful!!
- 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.
- The spiral tops of
Grecian Columns were designed after a nautilus shell cut in half.
- 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)).
- The Sydney Opera House
was designed to look like a giant Cock's Comb Oyster (Lopha cristagalli
(Linne)). Go to the John Uzton Page for 2 great
pictures of this building (the second one is best!)
- The Mayans of Mexico
carved bivalves and conch shells into the walls of their public buildings
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.)
- 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"!
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.
- 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!
Shell decoupage: This
is essentially making pictures by gluing shells 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!
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. (Can
someone find examples of some of these on the web?)
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!)
- Shell Crafts (see
above section) remain a distinctive 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.
- 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 grottos 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.
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:
Shells fetishes were often used in worship. Ceremonial garbs are many times
decorated with shells and were used in some religious ceremonies.
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 or is present in some special manner)
- 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.
Hindus: The god Vishnu holds his staff crowned with a very rare left-handed
Turbinella ("Chank") shell 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
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
- Asia: Buddhists:
The Chank or Turbinella also plays a significant role in their ritual
music and ceremonies, and figures into Buddhist iconography.
The home of the shrine of Santiago(St. James). St. James's badge is the Giant
European scallop shell (Pecten jacobaeus Linne).
Pilgrims to this shrine purchased the simple but exquisitely sculptured 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.
- Egypt, China
and other cultures used the cowry in connection with their burials and
other religious ceremonies.
NOTE: To see photos of New Guineans wearing tribal costumes, click
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 (Spondylus princeps (Broderip)), and the giant E. Pacific
conch (Strombus galeatus Linne) as well as Pinctada atlanticus
(a 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 (Strombus spp) shell. They also
used conch and horse conch (Pleuroploca) shell trumpets.
- Minoan Crete:
Shell trumpets were used in religious ceremonies.
- Christianity: Many
churches had or still have baptismal fonts made of Tridacna gigas Linne)
(the famous "Giant Clam"!) or are designed in their likeness. They are thought
to be a symbol of birth.
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:
- as a summons to religiousceremonies
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 (Charonia
tritonis L.) for this today.
- as a summons to call
warriors to battleand 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 foghornin the
- as an accompanimentin
songs, chants and dance throughout the Indo Pacific.
- as a ritual - blowing
of the Triton trumpet (Charonia tritonis Linne) 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: -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!)
- Horned helmet (Cassis
cornuta Linne, 1758) (Note: Linnaeus,
known as the Father of modern taxonomy (the science of how living things are
related to each other - see the article on Molluscan Taxonomy), named most
of the common molluscs all around the world (he had students and helpers always
out looking for new plants and animals!). So, most beginning shells
collections or discussions about well known shells or molluscs will have every
second species followed by his name, and the date of his first and largest
work, Systemmae Naturale - 1758!)
- Triton's Trumpet
(Charonia tritonis Linne), 1758. 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 (Strombus
gigas Linne, 1758). Note: This is the
common large shell found lining garden plots, paths, and as doorstops (which
is why it is sometimes referred to as the "doorstop 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.)
helmet (Cassis tuberosa Linne, 1758) - Lives in the Caribbean Sea,
and gets up to a foot (300mm) long, and very heavy.
- Giant Frog shell
(Bursa bubo Roding, 1798) - Indian and West Pacific Oceans.
Giant stromb or conch (Strombus galeatus Linne, 1758) - Central America.
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:
shell Jewelry(pendants, earrings, finger rings, nose rings, bracelets, etc.)
buttons and fasteners Abalone shells (Haliotis), especially the famous
Paua shell (Haliotis iris Martyn) 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.
decoration or as intrinsic parts of their function, shell or mother of pearl
(iridescent shell interior of many species of bivalves) were commonly used
on ceremonial or religious garbs.
clothing adornment, pearls are frequently sewn on as jewelry, fresh and saltwater
pearls are used in many ways as inserts in ceremonial masks.
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.
Two examples of
man using the byproducts of molluscs for decoration or fanch clothing are:
- as fine gloves, caps
stockings and collars. These were once made from the "golden fleece" or byssus
threads of Pen shells (Pinnidae).
- 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
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:
- Murex miliaris Gmelin,
Note: once known as M. purpura
Deshayes, 1834. This is a good example of a "synonym": when someone
gives a name to a species (i.e., "describes" it, in scientific lingo, since
the process involves publish a description of a single specimen of the species,
which becomes known as the "holotype" for that species, or several specimens,
which are then called "syntypes" (Syn in Latin means "together" - the specimens
are used together, as a group, to represent the species.) which someone else
has already described before, the first name has priority when other scientists
discover that the two names have been given to the same species. The
second (and all other names a species may accumulate - up to a hundred or
more, for very variable beasties!) then becomes a "synonym" of the first name,
which is the only one that is valid. This can cause confusion at times,
especially when a name has been used for a long time before an older name
is dug up, and everyone has to change his or her labels! - But it is the only
fair way of making sure the original describer (known as an "author", since
every new name for anything must be published in an article in a scientific
journal, or in a book) gets the credit he or she deserves.)
- The Purple Dye
Murex (Murex brandaris L.- (Mediterranean)
Note: Linneus described (i.e., named) so many
common species that his name as an author (see above Note)
is often simply abbreviated to "L.", for convenience!) - Uncounted millions
of these Murexes were killed to make purple dye for the Roman Empire!
- Certain Rock Shells
Thais haemastoma (L.), T. clavigella
(Kuster, 1856), and T. leucostoma (Gmelin, 1791)) (Europe)
- 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. ( For more information on
this subject, a good; but be warned, rather technical site for more information
of Synchrotron Techniques in Art and Archaeology Workshop )
- The Atlantic Dog whelk
(or "Dog winkle"): (New England and Eastern Canada, and also Europe).(Nucella
lapillus (L.)) In Nova Scotia, someone once tried to set up a factory
to produce purple dye from this species, but it flopped because it proved
too labor-intensive to gather and handle the millions of individual specimens
involved: by the time they paid all the workers, there was no money left for
- The Purple-mouthed
Purpura:(Purpura patula pansa (Gould, 1853)).(Central America) (see
above article on dyes).
- The Barnacle Rock
Shell: Concholepas concholepas (Brugiere,
1792)) (Peru and Chile).
All of the above species belong to the Family Muricidae - the Murex
Family!, and all produce a bluish-reddish-purplish type of dye.
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:
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
- Jewelry designers
- "Pearl button industry:
although not as important as it was in the early 1900s, it still remains as
an industry in many countries today.
- 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 industry- both
salt and fresh water pearls.
Note: "Worldwide, pearls are a $20 Billion
dollar (in USA dollars) industry! Pearls are used all over the world as an
- 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.
had an indirect influence in advancing other industrial and world concerns in
areas such as:
voyages both on land and sea.
diving and snorkeling ventures and companies: partly spurred on by collectors
looking for deep-water shells.
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!
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.
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!
is being conducted on the remarkable adhesive produced by carrier shells
(Xenophoridae) as a potential glue for undersea construction & repair
American Indians use shell lime to extract the narcotic (Cocaine!)
from cocoa leaves.
- Some countries used
powdered shells instead of calcium carbonate to make the liquid clay used
in the production of ceramics. This adds a different effect to the finished
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.
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.
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
(They study the shell part of mollusc - their external Skeletons)
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!)
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
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
(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:
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.)
Augustus Reeve (1814-1865)
Paul Deshayes (1796-1875)
Pearsall Carpenter (1819-1877)
Wilhelm Dunker (1809-1885)
Harper Pease (1824-1871)
Amandus Philippi (1808-1904)
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.
(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
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
Cuvier (1769-1850) France
- H. M.
de Blainville (1777-1850) France
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"!)
Paul Deshayes (1796-1875) France
Albert Smith (1847-1916) England
A. Gould (1805) USA
- W. G.
Binney (1833-1909) USA
Healy Dall (1845-1927) USA - he described a large portion of the molluscan
fauna of the Pacific Northwest of N. America.
Hedley (1862-1926) Australia
- A. Hirase (mid
twentieth century) Japan
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
CD - Microsoft, 1998.
Shells: An Illustrated
Guide to a Timeless and Fascinating World:
Doubleday & Company, Inc. New York 1974
Shell Shock: Conchological
Thames & Hudson Ltd., London 1994
to WWW Sites Used
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!
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
Thanks for your input as well as the wonderful shell photographs you donated
to 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 splendid 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
- Vicky Wall, USA
- Cadee M.C., Netherlands
- Lucia Gutierrez, Hawaii,
- Patrick Draeger, USA
- Emilio Lopez Hernandez,
- Michael Reagin, USA
This is a new
counter system set up by Globel on
December 01, 2002