Tips & Tools: How to Tell What Kind of Sea Shell

Shell collecting is a fun hobby and can be educational if you “kick it up a notch”, as Chef Emeril Lagasse would say, to shell identification. Seashells are great for collecting, especially on your summer beach vacation. They do not decay. They retain their color. They come in many shapes and sizes and so do their displays and containers.

Shells fill glass jars, old hats, baskets, window ledges, shadow boxes, tables, and flower beds as nature’s works of art all around the beach, much like in the musings of Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. My favorite is a shadow-box type coffee table with seashells, sand, driftwood, and other assorted items Neptune has given up. These make great conversation pieces and stir up memories.

But my daughter is the inquisitive type and an identification box is her desire; a clear plastic craft case with a label to identify each specimen. Some people even include information on when and where each is found and the weather conditions on the labels. Bette Everson of Holden Beach, North Carolina introduced us to shell identification this past summer at Holden Beach Town Hall. Prior to this, we did not give much thought to what we were collecting.

Mrs. Everson is a self-taught hobbyist who enjoyed shell hunting for many years with her husband whom passed away last November. They moved to Holden Beach four years ago and believe the best shells in their collection were found here. Mrs. Everson suggests the book Seashells of North Carolina written by Hugh J. Porter and Lynn Houser and published by the North Carolina Sea Grant Program for beginners because it is very detailed and oriented specifically to our area.

Mrs. Everson offers the following:

Tips To Identifying the Seashells You Have Found

First, decide if you have a whole single shell or one-half of a two-sided shell. A whole single shell is a gastropod also known as a univalve. An example of this type of shell is a conch. A two-sided shell that you normally find one-half of is a bi-valve. An example of this type is a mussel.

Next, determine the shape of the shell. To determine the shape of a gastropod, view the shell with the opening toward you. To determine the shape of a bi-valve, view the outside of the shell with the hinge being at the top. This is where your field guide can be very helpful.

Read the introduction to understand fully how to use the particular guide you have and check the glossary of definitions to follow conchologist lingo. Different field guides can name shapes differently.

Auger shells

Gastropods (snails). Spiral-shaped auger and wentletrap shells.

For example, gastropods can be ear-shaped, like moon snails and shark eyes. They can be spiral-shaped as in augers and wentletraps, which are tiny and often found by shaking the seaweed that has washed ashore. Univalves can also be mudsnail-shaped, which include periwinkles.

Bi-valves can be fan-shaped, such as scallops. Triangular-shaped bi-valves include tellins. Discus-shaped bi-valves include the common clam. Oysters and jingle shells illustrate oyster-shaped bi-valves.

Surprisingly, Mrs. Everson helped me identify the above variety of shells from my daughter’s collection in minutes. The labeled box just might be a possibility.

My daughter enjoys sifting through the smallest of shells left by the tide line, while I easily ignore them. But now that I see what I’ve been missing, I just might join her, since I can now appreciate what we find.

My personal tutor kindly went on to explain by example from her own collection. Whelk-shaped gastropods include conchs, murexes, and whelks.


Bi-valve jingle shells

Quill pen-shaped bi-valves are called penshells. Angelwing-shaped bi-valves are called angelwings and look just like what you would imagine a delicate white angel wing would look like. They are fragile and it is a treat to find a whole, unbroken “wing” in this area (Sanibel Island, Florida is where I found mine).

It is worth noting that the classes of mollusks of interest to shell seekers in this area are primarily the bi-valves, gastropods, and to a much lesser extent, chitons and tusk shells, both because they are fewer in number and in presence on coastal Carolina’s sandy shores. Chitons are shaped like a shield with eight overlapping plates. Tusk shells are shaped like a tusk or tooth.

Also, size matters. Once you have narrowed down the shape, read the description in your guidebook carefully. In pictures, a small blood ark and an Atlantic giant cockle, with their radial ribbing, look alike to me. However, the ark’s size is only up to two and one-quarter inches, while the cockle’s size is four and one-half inches, which is perfect for holding a small candle, Mrs. Everson muses. Upon close examination, other differences will become apparent, too.

S. Peter Dance author of Shells advises “not [to] expect to identify all of your shells down to species, or even to genus, straight away. Identifying shells is seldom easy and takes time.”

Finally, Mrs. Everson recommends talking to other shell seekers, they might know right away what you have found and are happy to share their knowledge.

If you are still having difficulty, the Museum of Coastal Carolina at Ocean Isle Beach has a wonderful exhibit and helpful staff, suggests Mrs. Everson.

“Most of all, just have fun. There has never been a time that I didn’t bring something back and enjoy the wonders and mysteries of the beach. Even if you can’t identify what you have – pick it up anyway” she instructs.

Although Mrs. Everson says all are beautiful, her favorite find is a scotch bonnet that she found on Holden Beach because it is so rare to find on Brunswick county beaches in North Carolina. She thinks her most magnificent shells are her horse conchs.

Many other treasures can be found by beach-goers that are worth collecting, as well. Sea whip is a seaweed, which is bright yellow or orange but is stinky. Dead man’s fingers is a woody and fuzzy seaweed. A mermaid’s purse is a rectangular black skate egg casing that is discarded after the fish hatches and is common to the beach. Horseshoe crab shells and sea urchins are interesting finds, but it is important to remember to only collect empty shells and non-living specimens.

To identify non-mollusk items, Mrs. Everson recommends the books The Seaside Naturalist by Deborah A. Coulombe and Tideland Treasure by Todd Ballantine.

Shelling offers the opportunity to bring something back: a love of nature, the thrill of the hunt, and an understanding of a world apart from our own. Sea shell “collectors learn more than just the names of shells. They become familiar with the animals that live inside and when and where certain shells are likely to be found. Shell collectors learn about tides and the physical features of the coast. They discover that many shell identification marks relate to the animal’s anatomy and provide clues to its lifestyle and behavior. Before long, collectors have learned biology, physics and geography without even realizing it” according to Seashells of North Carolina authors Hugh J. Porter and Lynn Houser.

A hobby that educates and nurtures a new appreciation for the natural world is worth looking into, especially when a child can be involved. After all, as George Santayana stated, “a child educated only at school is an under educated child.”


Previously published in The Brunswick Beacon. Reprinted with permission. 

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