The Ultimate Sea Shell Identification Guide

Guide to identifying different types of sea shells

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Are you ready for the ultimate sea shell identification guide?

I’m going to help you identify 63 amazing shells. 

There are actually around 100,000 shells in the world. So I choose to highlight the shells you are most likely to find at the beach, including rare, huge, and even one deadly shell.

But before we jump in, I’d like to show you a few shells I collected on my last shelling trip to Atlantic Beach in North Carolina.

Beautiful seashells from Atlantic Beach

I was able to find a shark eye, baby’s ear, lettered olive, slipper, auger, periwinkle, whelk, jewel box, and a……..

RARE scotch bonnet. I was so excited about this find!

I had so many shells from this trip, I started a shell garden outside.

Shells on the beach

That’s why it’s important to have a shell identification guide.

I wouldn’t have known what a scotch bonnet was or how rare they are unless I had learned about seashells.

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Would you like a free printable of all the shells below for your next beach trip? Click the button below.

The Ultimate Sea Shell Identification Guide

Florida Fighting Conch

Florida Fighting Conch Shell

The Florida Fighting Conch is known to quickly jump to scare off any predators. It can get as large as 4 1/2 inches and is found from Florida up to North Carolina.

Melon Shell

Melon Shell Guide

The Melon Shell is found in the Indo-Pacific region and can get up to 13 inches long. In the past, they were used to bail water out of boats.

King’s Crown Conch 

King's Crown Conch Shell Picture

This shell gets up to 5 inches long and is mainly found in West Florida in mudflats and oyster reefs. Spikes and color can vary widely from shell to shell.

Horse Conch

Horse Conch Seashell Pictures

This is the state shell of Florida and largest marine snail living in the Atlantic Ocean. It can grow up to 2 feet long and kills it prey by asphyxia.


Cockle Shell Identification guide

Cockles are a species of saltwater clams known for their tasty, delicate flesh and salty flavor. Some of the places they are found include Europe, Iceland, and New Zealand.

Channeled Duck Clam

Channeled Duck Clam Shell Types of Seashells

The Channeled Duck Clam shell is so delicate, it’s hard to find one intact on the beach. You can find them from North Carolina to Texas in sandy mud and shallow water.

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Calico Clam 

Calico Clam Shell Identification Guide

This gorgeous shell can be found along the Atlantic coast of North American, starting at North Carolina down to Bermuda and Brazil.

Bittersweet Clam

There are about 150 different species of the Bittersweet Clam. They can reach a length of 5 inches and are found from Virginia to Texas and also Brazil.

Purple Varnish Clam

Purple Varnish Clam Shell Identification Picture

These clams are native to Korea, China, and Japan but arrived from ships’ ballast water in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon encourages people to dig for these calms; you can collect 72 clams daily. Apparently, they are quite tasty.

Seashells of Georgia and the Carolinas

Seashells of Georgia and Carolinas

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Butter Clam 

Butter Clams types of shells

These delicious clams can be found in Alaska down to California. Surprisingly, they can live more than 20 years.

Softshell Clam

Softshell-Clam Identification Guide

Softshell clams are native to the East coast but can also be found on the West coast. They are called softshell because the shell can break easily when you are digging for them.


Sundial Pretty Shells

These impressive shells are found in the Indo-Pacific ocean among coral reefs and sandy seafloors. They can grow up to 3 inches in diameter.

Geoduck Clam

Geoduck Clam Beach Shell

The Geoduck is the largest burrowing clam globally, growing up to 6 feet long and weighing 15 pounds. It also has an incredible lifespan of 140 years.


Mussel Shells on the beach

There are many different kinds of mussels, some living in the sea and others in freshwater. Mussels are collected from deep water with rakes or dredges.

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Oyster Shell Guide To Seashells

Certain types of oysters are consumed raw or cooked and can be considered a delicacy. Pearl oysters are harvested for the pearls they produce.


Junonia Types of shells

These highly prized shells grow from 1 to 6 inches long. They live such a long life, it’s rare to find one washed up to shore. Junonia shells can be found along the Gulf of Mexico.

Lightning Whelk

Lightning Whelk Shell Types of Seashells

The Lightning Whelk is the state shell of Texas and can grow up to 15 inches long. Texas has laws regarding the collection of these live shells as shell collectors have overharvested them.

Banded Tulip

Banded Tulip Shelling Guide

This shell can be found in the ocean and inlets from North Carolina to Florida. Males can eject water, causing vibrations that attract females.

Sand Dollar

Sand Dollar Shell Hunting Guide

Sand dollars live up to 10 years. You can tell how old they are by the rings on their test plates. Live sand dollars have vibrant red and purple colors and only turn white after sitting in the sun.

Lettered Olive

Lettered Olive Shell from different types of seashells

This is the state shell of South Carolina and can be found from North Carolina to Florida. Even though shells can be easy to find, they are popular to collect because of their beautiful, glossy exterior.

Pink Mouthed Murex

Pink Mouthed Murex Shell Guide

This shell is found on the west coast of Mexico from Baja, California to Peru. It lives in the sand and mud and can grow up to 6 inches long.

Black Murex

Black Murex Shell Identification Guide

This murex shell can be found in the Gulf of California and grow almost 8 inches long. 

Venus Comb Murex

Venus Comb Murex a pretty seashell

This unique shell is hard to find intact as it has over 100 spines that can break off. It can grow up to 6 inches in length and is found in Indo-Pacific waters. 

Coquina Clam

Coquina Clam Shells Identification

Coquina Clams are found all over the world. They’re one of the tastiest clams but also one of the smallest. They come in many colors, including orange, white, purple, and yellow.


Cerith Seashell Guide to shelling

Cerith snails are mostly found in tropical waters. They are popular marine snails for aquariums as they are easy to care for, and they clean algae off of glass and plants.

Worm Shells

Worm Shells - sea shell types

The narrow, coiled tubes of sea snails are very different from regular snails. They grow attached to hard surfaces or connected to other large groups of worm snails.

Angel Wings

Angel Wings Seashells

These delicate shells have a set of ridges that act as teeth and can grind into clay or rock to create a burrow. They are a delicious food staple as well as popular with shell collectors.

SpikeBall Beach Game

TidalBall Beach Game

Cut Ribbed Ark Clam

Cut Ribbed Ark Clam Shell Identification Chart

This clam can grow up to 4 inches wide and is found along the Atlantic coast. This shell is rarely found on the beach and is often mistaken for a Ponderous Ark Clam.

Ponderous Ark Clam

Ponderous Ark Clam Beach Shells

This clam lives up to 10 years and lives in shallow water on the ocean floor. Its shell is white with black or brown patches of color that can be mistaken for a layer of tar or oil.

Triton’s Trumpet

Arrow Dwarf Triton Spiral Shell

Triton’s Trumpet is a type of sea snail that can grow up to 2 feet long. It is found in the Red Sea and Indo-Pacific Oceans and is one of the few animals to feed on crown-of-thorns starfish. Its name comes from the Greek god Triton.


Auger Spiral Shell

These snails are shaped like augers or screws and come in 400 different species. Some believe these shells to have special healing properties.

Scotch Bonnet

Scotch Bonnet Beach Shell

The Scotch Bonnet is the state shell of North Carolina and a rare find. I recently found one on Atlantic Beach, NC, and was ecstatic. They range in size from 2 to 4 inches, and the coloring can include yellow, orange, and brown.

Baby’s Ear

Baby's Ear Seashell Guide to identification

This predatory, carnivorous sea snail grows up to 2 inches in length. It is flat and pure white unless discoloration has occurred. You can find this shell from Maryland to Brazil and in Bermuda. I have found several in North Carolina.

Tiger Cowry

Tiger Cowry Seashell Guide

The Tiger Cowry lives on the ocean floor and is a carnivorous snail that eats coral, invertebrates, and algae. This is a popular shell for collectors and is even used in decorating. Some women in Japan hold them during childbirth, believing that it has special powers.


Cone Shell Guide to Shelling

Cone snails are found in a variety of gorgeous colors and patterns. Never pick one up because they have a stinging venom that can be fatal to humans. They are found in warm and tropical oceans and seas.


Cantharus Shell names

The Cantharus shell grows up to 1 1/2 inches and has knobs on the outside of the shell. Their coloring can include brown, orange, red, and white. They are often found attached to coral reefs.

Snake Head Cowry

Snake Head Cowry Snail Shell

There are many species of cowry, including the Snake Head Cowry pictured above. They’ve been used for jewelry and as a form of currency dating back 100,000 years. These beautiful shells can even sell for a high price today. Rumor has it that the most expensive cowry sold for over $50,000.


Drill Spiral Shell

This snail seeks out oysters and mussels by smell. It then drills a hole in its shell to feed on them with its radula (a tongue-like organ with miniature teeth). The Drill Snail causes serious destruction in commercial oyster farming.

Queen Helmet

Queen Helmet Shell - Large Shells

This enormous, thick shell can grow up to a whopping 16 inches long. It’s mainly found in shallow, tropical waters but occasionally found on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.


Keyhole Limpet Seashell - Different Types of Seashells

Limpets attach themselves to rocks so strongly that powerful currents can’t remove them. In fact, when limpets are fully clamped down, removing them is challenging as they will allow themselves to be destroyed by letting go of a surface.

Paper Fig

Paper Fig Seashell Guide

This delicate shell can be mistaken for a Pear Whelk, but a Paper Fig doesn’t have the distinct spirals of a Whelk. A Paper Fig can reach 5 inches in length and is found from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Jewel Box

Jewel Box Shell

This spine-covered shell can be found from North Carolina to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. The inside of the shell is usually light pink or red. Newer shells will have longer spines.


Jackknife Shell Printable Identification Guide

This clam is named for its extremely sharp rim, which can injure someone walking on the beach. The jackknife clam lives in sand and mud and can swim by shooting jets of water out of its shell.

Jingle Shells

Jingle Shells

This shell is unusually strong for how thin and translucent it is. Jingle shells are named for the sound they make when several are strung together to make a wind chime. They are also used to make jewelry.

Shark Eye

Shark's Eye Moon Shell - Shelling Guide

The Shark Eye snail can secrete an acidic enzyme that allows it to drill a hole in the shell of its prey in a matter of minutes. The enzymes then soften the flesh of the prey so the snail can devour its victim.


Nassa Seashells on the beach

This snail lives on mud or sand flats and can be found worldwide. Their small size and ornamental appearance have made them popular for use in jewelry dating back 100,000 years.

Pen Shell

Pen Shell - identifying seashells

This snail can grow up to an amazing 4 feet in length and lives in the Mediterranean Sea. It produces silk-like threads which can be used to make an extremely rare and valuable fabric.


Periwinkle - pictures of sea shells

Periwinkles have been an important food source for parts of the world since around 7500 B.C.E.  They are commonly sold in paper bags at beaches near Scotland after being boiled in seawater. They are considered a delicacy in Africa. 

Harp Shell

Harp Shells on the beach

This shell has stunning patterns and striking colors. It is carnivorous and can grow up to 4 inches. It is mainly found in shallow waters in tropical seas.

Rock Snail

rock Snail Shell - types of seashells

Rock Snails are mainly found in Florida and Alabama. They have been declining rapidly in number due to the extensive construction of dams. They tend to live where they can attach themselves to rock or gravel in strong currents.

Nautilus Shell

Nautilus Seashell

Nautilus snails are only found in the Indo-Pacific and grow from 6 to 10 inches. They live deep in the ocean on coral reefs and use their 90 tentacles to gather food.

Lion’s Paw Scallop

Lion's Paw Scallop Seashell

The Lion’s Paw Scallop has distinct knobs and ridges on its shell. It can be found in many bright colors, including red, orange, and purple. It can grow up to 6 inches in length.

Calico Scallop

Calico Scallop Types of shells

The Calico Scallop comes in a range of eye-catching colors and patterns. Scallops have a large number of small eyes, which help them detect predators. Some scallops even squirt jets of water from around the edge of their shells to help them escape from predators.

Irish Baking Scallop

Irish Baking Scallop Shell

These scallop shells are about 4 inches wide and can be used for baking. You can cook or grill food in them or use them for serving condiments and appetizers.


Tellin Shell - Seashell Pictures

The Tellin shell is not considered rare but is a favorite among shell collectors for its color and texture. The empty shells look like butterflies when laid flat. 

Top Shells

Top Shells

These shells resemble a toy spinning top. They can be as small as 1/4 of an inch on up to 5 inches. Top shells are brightly colored and can be found worldwide.

Chestnut Turban 

Chesnut Turbin Beach Shells

The Chestnut Turban is shaped like a top or a turban. It lives in many parts of the world and grows up to a 1/2 inch in length.


Wentletrap Shell Names

Wentletraps have a beautiful spiral shell that looks like a staircase. They live in all oceans worldwide but can be hard to find because they are so small. Many wentletraps are less than an inch long.


Tun Seashell names

This snail paralyzes its prey with sulphuric acid and then swallows it whole. It lives in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Atlantic waters extending as far north as North Carolina. This large snail can grow up to 6 inches tall.

Queen Conch

Queen Conch Shell Guide

The Queen Conch can grow up to 12 inches long and live up to 40 years. The meat is considered a delicacy by humans and also eaten by loggerhead sea turtles and horse conch. The Queen Conch is found in the Caribbean.

Common Spirula

Common Spirula Seashell

This shell comes from a squid-like mollusk and is often called a Ram’s Horn Shell. Live Spirula are rarely seen as they are deep ocean dwellers, but shells are common to find on tropical beaches.

Australian Trumpet 

Australian Trumpet Shell - Largest Shell in the world

The Australian Trumpet is one of the largest shells in the world and can grow up to 35 inches. It is found in Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.

Lightning Dove

Lightning Dove Shell Identification Guide

This small, pretty shell (less than one inch in length) is found in the Indian Ocean along Madagascar and the Western Pacific. It can have spots or zig-zag stripes, hence the name Lightning Dove.

Chiton Shell

Chiton Seashell

The Chiton is found in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. You can usually find them clinging to rocks near the shoreline. It can grow up to four inches long and has a black or brown shell and eight small arms to cling to rocks on the ocean floor.

Ammonite Shell

Ammonite Shell

If you find an Ammonite shell on the beach, be sure to take it home with you! The mollusks that once lived in these shells have been extinct for 65 million years.  This shell was once used to make jewelry and ornaments but is now a popular souvenir for beach-goers.

Volute Shell

Volute Sea Shell

These colorful shells are mostly found in warm tropical waters but can be found in other parts of the world. There are over 200 different types of Volute Shells. The shell is often white or light purple with stripes of orange or red.

Seashell Identification Guide

Different kinds of shells identification book for beach packing list

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Seashell Collecting Bag

Seashell Collecting Bag

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Don’t forget to get your free printable of these shells for your next beach trip!

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Hi! I'm Kristen

I'm based in North Carolina, and love finding the hidden gems of the Carolinas and beyond! I explore quaint towns, adventurous outdoor activities, and fantastic food to help my readers plan their own unforgettable travels.

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63 Responses

  1. how do I receive the guides I’ve done alot shelling in the last 37 years. mostly in Florida and the Carolina’s, but don’t have a good guide to identify many of the different shells. I just turned 79 and I don’t get around as much. a guide would really help me identify some of the 75pounds of shells I’ve collected. do you email the guides? thanks

    1. There’s a button you click on that post that will take you to a form where you put in your email address. Once you do that, you’ll be able to access the printable seashell guide. You could also invest in a good shelling identification book. I think I recommend a good one in that post. But I’m sure you could find one from any good bookstore. That’s exciting that you’ve collected that many shells!

  2. Me and my family live towards the center of the country, so driving to the beach means driving for a million hours or so. I live somewhat near Idaho and Oregon. So, what are the best local beaches I can visit?

    1. I am more familiar with beaches on the east coast, but Cannon Beach in Oregon is a gorgeous beach.

  3. Such gorgeous shells! I recently found what I think is a Snake Head Cowry in the Bahamas. I didn’t know what it was until I read your list! I wonder if it’s still valuable? 😉
    I also found an amazingly gorgeous and shiny white olive shell with yellow stripes.. it’s so different from the ones we have on the coast of North Carolina!

    1. That’s so cool that you got to go shelling in the Bahamas! I’m so jealous 🙂 I’ve seen a lot of Snake Head Cowrys for sale on Etsy. Some people also make them into necklaces to sell.

  4. You have a photo that you have listed as bittersweet clam but the shells are actually scallop shells not bittersweet clam shells.

  5. My daughter love to collect shells. I am on search for different species of shells and this is a great help. Thank you.

  6. Very helpful guide thank you! I differ with just one shell on your list. I don’t think those are chestnut turbans (the shells in the picture). I find a lot of them in Honeymoon Island State Park in Florida and they are not pointed at the top. Check it out. Otherwise very helpful – I was trying to find a shell that I found and your post helped! (jackknife).

    1. I’ll take a look at the picture I have for that shell. Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad you found the guide helpful. And thanks for mentioning Honeymoon Island State Park in Florida. I hope to go there soon.

    1. I have a goal to get even more shells on my list. I’ll try to get more tropical shells on there. Thanks for the feedback!

  7. I love seashells so much I bought a beautiful display case with 5 glass shelves to display them. My visitors, guests and family can’t get enough of them, they always ooh and awe over them. I’ve purchased many of the rare ones and they live beside the ones I’ve found on the florida beaches. The short descriptions of the ones covered here are excellent. You’ve done us a marvelous service with the pictures and stories of each one. A big thank you! I’m getting a 5 year old grandson of a neighbor interested in seashells by letting him pick a shell that he is drawn to and telling him a story about it. Makes my 90 yr old mind glow!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing about your seashell collection. It sounds amazing! One of my goals is to visit Florida to collect seashells!

    1. You and I both noticed the same misidentification. However it still shows a scallop shell for a bittersweet clam shell.

  8. Wow this is an amazing guide to identifying shells! It’s so fun to find and collect them. Now there’s an easy way to know what kind of shell you’ve found.

  9. I understand why collectors would want the lightening shell, it’s gorgeous. Oh and the sand dollar, we have them here on the Canadian West Coast, and ours are black when they are alive. I’ve never seen them in any other colour up here, but they are probably much more beautiful in a vibrant colour.

    1. That’s interesting that your sand dollars are black. I’m going to have to look up a picture of that!

  10. Wow what an extensive guide! Seashells are so beautiful. I always try to not take too many because I don’t want to disturb the beaches ecosystem. But I think a little at a time creates such a lovely momento from your trip.

    1. We definitely need to be mindful of the beach ecosystem. Empty shells can be future homes for sea critters. And in some places, it’s illegal to take empty shells.

  11. I had no idea there was so different kind of shells. Love the pictures tu go with the descriptions of each. I will be more careful now and see if I can find rare ones.

    1. I definitely appreciate seashells more now that I can identify them better. The sea world is so amazing!

  12. Wish I had this recently when we were staying in the outer banks for our 25th! Great guide for one of my favorite vacation pastimes!

    1. How nice that you got to stay in the Outer Banks for your anniversary! The Outer Banks are a great place to go shelling.

  13. I remember seeing many of these seashells when we visited the back beaches. Thanks for the shell identification guide as it has bought back those memories of finding them.

    1. It’s really interesting how long sea life can live. And so important to make sure there are no critters still alive in the shells you collect – I’ve learned the hard way 🙂

  14. What a great shell guide and now I know what I need to do when I go visit my granddaughters in North Carolina we def need to take a trip to the beaches. This is a great activity to do with them they will love it. I might have to print off picts and have them match them.

    1. I have a printable that goes with the post. There’s a link somewhere in the post to a 4-page colorful printout of the shells in the post.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. There are about 100,000 shells, but I thought that might be overkill… 🙂

    1. That’s awesome that you’ve found a way to keep the shells you’ve collected. They are a great way to remember beach trips.

  15. I will definitely be back to this post the next time I find an interesting seashell. My favorite one you posted is the sundial!

    1. I’ve really enjoyed getting into collecting and identifying shells. There are even seashell collecting clubs you can join.

  16. This is an awesome shell guide! I learned sooo much!! Will definitely add another dimension to my daughters collection! Now she can identify what she has!

    1. I’m so glad you liked it. There are even more shells than what I have here, but these are most of the common ones, and I had to stop somewhere….

  17. This is such an amazing shell guide! I love learning about all the different seashell names! Great Post!

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