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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 shells, huge shells, 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.
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.
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 learned about seashells.
Would you like a free printable of all the shells below for your next beach trip?
The Ultimate Sea Shell Identification Guide
Florida Fighting Conch
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
This gorgeous shell can be found along the Atlantic coast of North American, starting at North Carolina down to Bermuda and Brazil.
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
These clams are native to Korea, China, and Japan but arrived in the Pacific Northwest from ships’ ballast water. Oregon encourages people to dig for these calms, and you can collect 72 clams per day. Apparently, they are quite tasty.
These delicious clams can be found in Alaska down to California. Surprisingly, they can live more than 20 years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Certain types of oysters are consumed raw or cooked and can be considered a delicacy. Pearl oysters are harvested for the pearls they produce.
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.
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.
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 dollars live up to 10 years. You can actually tell how old they are by the rings on the plates of their test. Live sand dollars have vibrant red and purple colors and only turn white after sitting in the sun.
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
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.
This murex shell can be found in the Gulf of California and can grow almost 8 inches in length.
Venus Comb Murex
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Cut Ribbed Ark Clam
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
This clam lives up to 10 years and lives in shallow water on the ocean floor. It’s shell is white with black or brown patches of color that can be mistaken for a layer of tar or oil.
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.
These snails are shaped like augers or screws and come in 400 different species. Some believe these shells to have special healing properties.
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.
This is a predatory, carnivorous sea snail that 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.
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 snails are found in a variety of gorgeous colors and patterns. Never pick one up, though, because they have a stinging venom that can be fatal to humans. They are found in warm and tropical oceans and seas.
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
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.
This snail seeks out oysters and mussels by smell. It then drills a hole in their shell to feed on them with their radula (a tongue-like organ with miniature teeth). The Drill Snail causes serious destruction in commercial oyster farming.
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.
Limpets attach themselves to rocks so strongly that powerful currents can’t remove them. In fact, when limpets are fully clamped down, it’s challenging to remove them as they will allow themselves to be destroyed over letting go of a surface.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t forget to get your free printable of these shells for your next beach trip!
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