Identifying The Helmet Shells

As I mentioned in a previous post I came across a collection of seashells which included large “helmet” shells. Or, at least, helmets were my best guess. I was not familiar with the helmet species, and I’ve had to do some research on the various helmets, especially the kinds found here in Florida. After much research, I have come to the conclusion that the shells I have are called Horned Helmets (Cassis cornuta) and are not found in the Florida area.

All photos on this page are mine, and they are of the horned helmet species although I refer to other types of helmets.

queen helmet shells
Cassis cornuta – horned helmet shell, Left, 7 inches tall, Right is 4 inches tall.

To begin my research I went to my three reference books, which are listed below. I will share some of the info gleaned from these books. If you are interested in learning more about seashells I recommend the first two. The Seashell Compendium is an old book and may not be available for purchase, but it does contain lots of shell photography from species collected all over the world and therefore is a helpful reference for me.

teeth of the helmet shell
The teeth of the smaller helmet shell

Info About Helmets From Florida’s Living Beaches Book

My reference book, Florida’s Living Beaches mentions the Queen helmet, also known as the “cameo”. Look it up by it’s scientific name, Cassis madagascariensis. In Florida it is most likely to be found around the southeastern part of the state and along the Keys. It does not mention a “King” helmet except to say that the Queen does not have a “central dark blotch” like the King (see the paragraph below). This book does not mention the Horned helmet at all.

big horned helmet shell
At 7 inches tall and weighing a little over 3 pounds, this is one big seashell!
teeth of the helmet shell
A view inside the larger helmet shell, with “teeth” and bright orange coloring

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Shells

My Audubon Society Shell reference book has a lot of info about the helmets and a few photos. I learned that the King Helmet (Cassis tuberosa) is smaller than the Queen. The King Helmet is brown in color with a large brown spot near the opening, and you can see it in the photo in the book, which shows the bottom of the shell as well as a view of the top. It also grows to be 9 inches tall, whereas the Queen can be 14 inches tall. The females are larger.

This book also mentions the Flame Helmet, but no mention of the Horned Helmet (which makes sense because it is not from this region).

The larger Horned Helmet, which weighs a little over 3 pounds. That is a heavy shell to drag around!

Types of Helmets

As you can see at this link the family Cassidae shows helmet shells which are very rounded, without the protruding “spikes” found on my shells.

The cameo helmet, or Clench’s helmet, is also very rounded in appearance. Cameos were once carved into the shells because of the layers of light and dark colors, hence the name “cameo”. From what I see, these shells were also called “Emperor” shells. See photos at Jaxshells. So the Queen helmet is also known as the “Cameo” and the “Emperor”, from what I gather. See the image from Wikimedia below.

The American Museum journal (c1900-(1918)) (18133923686)

The Compendium of Seashells

A while ago I bought an older book called Compendium of Seashells which was first published in 1982. I found the book on Amazon and decided it would be a good idea to have more info when writing this blog. It boasts to be a “color guide to more than 4,200 of the world’s marine shells”. And believe me, it contains lots shells.

Sometimes readers will ask a question about a specific shell they have collected and it’s important to understand that there are many, many shells that look an awful lot alike. For instance there are 29 pages of Cone shells… yes, 29 pages devoted to the family Conidae! Each page has approximately 12 types of cone shell listed. For this reason it is not easy to figure out which shell is which!

The compendium does mention the Horned helmet shell. It says that it is associated with coral reefs and it is common, found in the Indo-Pacific region. This book shows more helmets called Cowry-helmets, but the only ones found around the state of Florida are the King (rare), Queen (also known as Emporer / Clench’s (old name) / Cameo), and Flame (Princess). To the best of my knowledge, this is my deduction.

The shells in the photos on this page did not come from the Florida area.

horned helmet shells
Two horned helmet shells with spikes and brown markings

What I would consider the “back” of the shell is actually the front for the snail / mollusk. That upward tipped protuberance is where the snail would come out and pull the shell along (that smaller area). Both of these shells are broken in this upturned area. The snails eat sea urchins and sand dollars. Below is a video, taken in Hawaii, of a Helmet shell going after a sea urchin.

In Conclusion: The Horned Helmets

The Horned Helmet (Cassis cornuta) is from the Indo-Pacific area. All photos I have found online point to my two shells being from that region. That would explain no mention in my Florida seashell books. It means that the previous shell owner either bought them, or found them on her travels to the region. Of course someone could have given them to her as well. This is disappointing since I was hoping they were uncommon local shells which were collected years ago somewhere here in Florida. However, I have learned a lot writing this post.

As you can imagine, the helmets are much sought after for their beauty and as collector’s items. They are large, heavy and unusual so they are probably not easy to find these days out in the ocean. If you came across one, it would probably hold the snail that built it. Take a photo and let it live, if that is the case. I’ve come across many seashells I would love to have, but if they are occupied, they deserve to be left alone. In many cases it is also the law!

Horned helmet shell
Markings of the Horned Helmet shell

I have no idea how old these shells are or if their original color was brighter (probably). I washed them in water with a bit of ammonia and then put a light coating of coconut oil on each one. (Let the oil sit on the shell overnight and wipe off the excess.) The larger shell still has some stubborn green algae but I may clean it again at a later time.

No matter where the snails lived that built these shells, the specimens are extraordinary. I consider my self lucky to have seen them first hand.

To read more about the Cassis cornuta, please visit the Wikipedia page about the Horned Helmet.

Helmet shells
Beautiful and unique seashells

Along with the helmet shells, the new collection includes murex shells (also not from Florida), but I did update my Florida murex shells page if you are interested.

Zana’s Seashell Legacy

Zana is my friend’s mom and she died not too long ago. She had been living with her daughter, my friend Judy, until her death. I was living in New Hampshire at the time, so I never got a chance to say good-bye to Zana (who had the coolest name ever!). But the other day I visited Judy (now that I live in Florida once again) and I discovered Zana’s seashell legacy.

We were hanging out by the pool at my friend’s house and I noticed a collection of seashells on her table. The size of the shells caught my attention first. I took a closer look, and in the ceramic bowl, full of old rainwater, I found amazing treasures.

helmets and murex seashells

I began to remove the shells from the shallow bowl, one at a time, to get a better look. I was stunned at what I saw! I told my friend that I had to get some photos of these shells. Judy said they had been her mom’s. Well, I had questions! Where did she get them? Did she collect them herself? Where was she when she found them? My friend didn’t know.

I have since found some answers. Read more about the Helmets on another post.

West Indian crown conchs
West Indian Crown conchs and a big helmet shell

My friend seemed uninterested when I said that these were really awesome seashells!!! I continued to take photos and my friend insisted I pick out a shell or two and take it home. I said, “No, I just want photos”. These were her mom’s collection and she may have found the shells on Florida’s beaches long ago. Zana lived in Florida all her life and she obviously thought enough of the shells to keep them with her when she moved in with her daughter.

I was pretty sure that the big ones were helmet shells. I’d never seen helmets in real life, only in my books. Never in my life did I imagine I would see such beauties in person! Maybe shells like these were not all that hard to come by on Florida beaches long ago. Imagine that..!

scallop shells
Beautiful scallop shells

As I packed up my swimsuit and belongings to leave, Judy was at the shell table and she was loading all the shells – yes, ALL THE SHELLS – into a basket and told me I was taking them all home with me! I protested. She said that I was the shell girl and they were now mine. I could go write about them on my blog.

Washing the seashells in the sink
Cleaning the shells in my sink

Today I cleaned up the shells, which were a bit slimy, and will spend some time soon getting good photos of each of the larger ones. The scallops are big and beautiful as well, and I would love to know where they came from. I can’t imagine Zana buying them. She was a nature lover, gardener and all around fun lady. I’d sure love to talk with her. I’ll need to do some research on the helmets (King or Queen?) and write posts featuring them. I know for certain you don’t just walk along a Florida beach nowadays and come across such gorgeous shells.

Lovely pink inside the murex shell

Now that the shells are cleaned up, I’m thinking that my friend will enjoy them more. I can’t in good conscience keep Zana’s legacy when it is not rightly mine. The best of these shells will make their way back to the home they belong in, eventually. But in the meantime I will have fun sharing my photos with all my readers. Thanks Zana!

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