Small Seashells Can Be Tricky to Identify

juvenile horse conch shell

Whenever I have found a longish little brown shell out in the backwater shallows, I have assumed it was a baby horse conch. After studying my “Florida’s Living Beaches” book I see that I must have been wrong in some cases. I will go back through my blog posts to see if I have mis-named it.

At first glance the shape of the brown shell is right. Horse conchs are long shells with a pointy spire – the top of the shell that is twirled. But the baby horse conch tends to be light in color. They are usually a uniform light yellow color. But the brown shell below is not a juvenile horse conch. It is most likely a Chestnut latirus (Leucozonia nassa). It only grows to a little over 2 inches in length whereas the horse conch can grow to be an impressive 2 feet long! Because I do find many horse conchs, in this area, I assumed it was a baby.

Juvenile Horse Conch, or Not?

Chestnut latirus marine snail shell with a hermit crab inside
Chestnut latirus

The answer is no for the brown shell, but the shell I am holding in the photo below is a juvenile horse conch. Although it is partially covered in the black periostracum commonly found on shells in the wild, you can see the light yellow color of the shell. It is also more elongated with a longer siphon canal (opening). The difference is easy to see when comparing the photo above and below (which were taken months apart).

The shells I come across are usually not in the greatest of shape. Besides being covering in black stuff, mud, algae, and barnacles, they are often not fully intact. Both shells have missing pieces.

Juvenile horse conch seashell light yellow in color covered with black Periostracum, found in the wild
Baby horse conch shell

Here’s the other problem I have when it comes to identifying seashells out in the wild. I can’t bring them home because hermit crabs usually have taken up residence. The sun is incredibly bright and I snap a few photos to look at later and hope I got some good shots. (I never take enough photos!) So I can’t study them except to look at my few pictures.

Also, because the original snail is no longer in the shell, the shell can be found far from the snails usual habitat. The Chestnut latirus lives on reefs, and the horse conch likes sand. Yet I find them living together as hermit crabs in a sandy area! See my dilemma?

More Little Shells to Identify

I’m very sure this little hermit house is a juvenile Crown conch. There are no spikes on it yet, but it has the tell-tale stripes beginning to form as you can see in my second photo below.

hermit crab in juvenile crown conch shell
Juvenile crown conch with hermit crab inside
tiny seashells
Small Crown Conch with periwinkles

The shell below is a faded Crown Conch which was found inland, so no hermit inside. The spikes are beginning to form even though it’s only about an inch in size.

juvenile crown conch
Juvenile crown conch shell, with spikes just beginning to grow

Of the two shells below, I believe the brown one is the Eastern Mudsnail (Ilyanassa obsoleta), but the other one baffles me. The trouble with small shells is you don’t know if you are looking at a full grown one or a baby that will turn into something else (or would have, if it had lived).

Tiny mud snail shells

The little white shell I am holding in the photo below was a recent find. A tiny hermit crab lives inside but I wanted a photo to try to identify the type of shell.

I believe it is a Bruised nassas, (Nassarius vibex)or type of mud snail. (You can see more photos here.) Those bumpy ribs make the shell unique looking, but the nassas is really very common. The mud snails stay small and often measure an inch or less. I suppose they are the perfect choice for a baby hermit crab to reside.

tiny seashell home to a little hermit crab

Below I am holding a Florida cerith shell with a tiny hermit crab peeking out. This shell stays small at a max of 1.5 inches. It’s perfect as a home for tiny crabs. The cerith can be found all around the coastline of Florida.

Florida cerith shell with hermit crab inside

Below is a different Cerith found in another location at another time.

Where to Find These Small Marine Snail Shells

Every shell pictured on this page (except the faded crown next to the measuring tape) was found while boating out to islands along the Indian River. The faded crown was found while walking at Smyrna Dunes Park while the building of the new boardwalk dug up some buried shells. These hermit crabs need water, so any inland shells won’t contain them.

The snails that build these shells live in shallow, sandy, grasses areas, and sometimes near mangrove islands.

Of all these shells only two would have grown to be big. The Crown Conch and Horse Conch are just babies when something ate the snail leaving the shell empty for a hermit to move in.

You will probably never see shells like this along the tourist beaches. Read my page about the typical shells you might collect when visiting the ocean beaches.

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