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cleaning horse conch

About The Florida Horse Conch Mollusk and Seashell

The horse conch is the Florida state shell. It is one of the largest shells to be found around the coastline and is the largest snail in North America. The horse conch is one of the spindle shells. They are thick and elongated. It looks like someone stretched the shell from both ends. It can grow to be nearly 2 feet in length!

hermit crab inside horse conch shell
Small horse conch with hermit crab inside

The small horse conchs I’ve come across have all had hermit crabs inside.  As can be seen in my photo, they are not very pretty while living in the wild. Usually shells are slimy and brown or green when found out in nature.

One day, while we were boating, I noticed this big shell just under the water on a sandy flat covered in about a foot of water.   The water was clear that day and the tide was going out.  I walked over to the dark spot in the water and discovered that it was a living horse conch!  I was so excited.  This was the first one I had ever seen in the wild.  My son is holding it so I could get a photo.  We immediately put it back down in the water  and left him alone.

living horse conch
Live Horse Conch – approximately 14 inches long

A little later in the day we saw another one, just like this one. The water was clear and the tide was going out, which is a good time to see these living monster mollusks. Read my post about finding this living horse conch.

Florida horse conchs (Triplofusus giganteus) live in sandy shallows, and that is exactly where we found this one.   Supposedly, they can be found all around the Florida coastline living in the sandy shallows.  I rarely see them.  Maybe it’s because the dig down into the sand… as I discovered later on.

The photo below is of a live horse conch found along the Intracoastal Waterway near Oak Hill, Florida.  The water was murky that day, as you can see.    This guy was dug down into the sand so far that I didn’t know what it was until I pulled it up – hoping for an empty shell, but expecting a piece of debris or coquina rock.  I didn’t realize that horse conchs bury themselves!  So I left him alone and got an underwater photo with the Go-Pro.

underwater horse conch mollusk
Underwater Photo of Live Horse Conch
live horse conch under water
Big living horse conch under water

Sometimes juvenile shells are hard to identify, but the long spire (top spike) on the horse conch makes it relatively easy to recognize. The little one in the photo below had no mollusk inside, just a hermit crab. It was fun to find, since horse conchs are not easy to spot where I travel – large or small.

horse conch
Tiny horse conch with hermit crab inside

A picture of a horse conch egg shell casing can be seen on this post at the “i love shelling” blog, which is written by a woman who lives on Sanibel Island. Click the link and scroll down the page. Sanibel Island is on the Gulf coast, where beautiful shells of all types are easy to find.  I do not live in such a place. The wonderful big seashell finds are few and far between over here on the East coast.

The search is one of the best parts of beach-combing.
One day I got lucky and found a big horse conch sitting on the sand in the backwaters. Nothing was inside. The shell was too large for hermit crabs, so it was something I could collect.
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The shell had a film of dark brown stuff called periostracum all over it and some hard barnacles. I chipped off the barnacles and got some of the periostracum off, but I decided it looked just fine with some of the brown left on.

florida horse conch
Ready to clean the shell

This horse conch sits on the windowsill over my kitchen sink. I love to look at it and wonder about the life of the mollusk that made it. Where did it travel and how old was it when it finally died, and how did that happen?  The large snail can eat many gastropods and bivalves.  This snail is huge.

florida horse conch shell
My big shell find – this horse conch is 10 inches long

The video is of a big horse conch eating a tulip snail and the scurrying hermit crabs who fight over the empty tulip shell.

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The Whelks of Florida

English: Living specimen of Busycon carica out...
English: Living specimen of Busycon carica out of water at Bethany Beach, Delaware. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Whelk shells of Florida are widely collected and they can be some of the largest shells you’ll find on Florida beaches. (Don’t collect them if they are inhabited.)

The Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica), Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), Pear Whelk (Busycon spiratum) and Lightning Whelk (Busycon contrarium) can all be quite large.  In fact the Lightning Whelk can grow to a length of 16 inches. Common characteristics include their long shape with a wide opening.

Of these four, the Pear Whelk is least common. It is pear shaped (imagine that!) and grows to a length of 5 1/2 inches. (Here is a beautiful picture of the Pear Whelk.)  All four whelks live in the sand intertidally (between the high tide and low tide marks) and the Knobbed Whelk is also common on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and abundant in southern New England.

You can read more about these seashells at the Guide to Northeast Florida Whelks.

The Cowry Seashell

Shells of various species of cowries; all but ...
Image via Wikipedia

The cowry shell (also spelled ‘cowrie’) is popular on jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets and is found in varying sizes as you can see in the picture from Wikipedia.   This shell was widely used throughout the world as a form of currency.

I found another interesting use for the cowry.  According to the “Shells in History” site, In China, the number of cowrie’s stuffed into the mouths of the dead was determined by how important that person was. Commoners had rice instead of shells, but the emperor had nine cowry shells in his!

Click here and get a FREE, printable coloring page of this shell.

Cowry Shells
Cowry Shells

I doubt that the Emperor had shells of this size in his mouth (the one on the left is over 4 inches long!), but Cowries come in all sizes and according to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida, the money cowry was the most widely circulated currency in history.

3 & 4 inch Cowry Shells, Showing underneath the Tiger Shell
3 & 4 inch Cowry Shells, Showing underneath the Tiger

The shell on the right in my photos is a Tiger Cowry and the one on the left is a Measled Cowry.  Both of mine were purchased about 20 years ago.

Seashell Identification: How It Began

Florida 2008
Image by mathewingram via Flickr

I am not a seashell expert, just an everyday person who has recently taken an interest in identifying the Florida shells I have collected over the years.  

While walking the Florida beaches during the many years I lived there, picking up pretty seashells was just part of life. It was something to keep the kids happy on vacation and we always went home with a bucket of their favorite shells. …..continue reading