Conchology (from Ancient Greek: κόγχος konkhos, "cockle") is the study of mollusc shells. Conchology is one aspect of malacology, the study of molluscs; however, malacology is the study of molluscs as whole organisms, whereas conchology is confined to the study of their shells. It includes the study of land and freshwater mollusc shells as well as seashells and extends to the study of a gastropod's operculum.

Shell of Lobatus gigas, the queen conch

Conchology is now sometimes seen as an archaic study, because relying on only one aspect of an organism's morphology can be misleading. However, a shell often gives at least some insight into molluscan taxonomy, and historically the shell was often the only part of exotic species that was available for study. Even in current museum collections it is common for the dry material (shells) to greatly exceed the amount of material that is preserved whole in alcohol.

Conchologists mainly deal with four molluscan orders: the gastropods (snails), bivalves (clams), Polyplacophora (chitons) and Scaphopoda (tusk shells). Cephalopods only have small internal shells, with the exception of the Nautiloidea. Some groups, such as the sea slug nudibranchs, have lost their shells altogether, while in others it has been replaced by a protein support structure.

Versus shell collectingEdit

A vendor in Tanzania with a variety of large seashells for sale

The terms shell collector and conchologist can be regarded as two distinct categories. Not all shell collectors are conchologists; some are primarily concerned with the aesthetic value of shells instead of their scientific study. It is also true that not all conchologists are shell collectors; this type of research only requires access to private or institutional shell collections. There is some debate in the conchological community, with some people regarding all shell collectors (regardless of motivation) as conchologists. There are many names for shells that people like to collect besides the mollusc shell. For example, popular shells would be the Angel Wing, the Kings Crown, The Lace Murex, and the Giants Atlantic Cockle.


Molluscs have probably been used by primates as a food source long before humans evolved. The Asturian culture of the European Mesolithic, in modern north Spain, is one of many coastal archaeological cultures around the world characterized by the creation of very large shell-middens or waste-heaps. The extremely large Whaleback Shell Midden appears to have been created over a period of 1,000 years or more.

Shell collecting, the precursor of conchology, probably goes back as far as there have been humans living near beaches. Stone Age seashell necklaces have been found, sometimes in areas far from the ocean, indicating that they were traded. Shell jewellery is found at almost all archaeological sites, including at ancient Aztec ruins, digs in ancient China, and the Indus Valley.

Sea shells from Recreatione dell'occhio e della mente by Filippo Bonanni

During the Renaissance people began taking interest in natural objects of beauty to put in cabinets of curiosities. Because of their attractiveness, variety, durability and ubiquity, shells became a large part of these collections. Towards the end of the 17th century, people began looking at shells with scientific interest. In 1681 the two-volume shell atlas Ricreazione dell'occhio et della mente nell'osservazione delle chiocciole was published in Rome by the Jesuit priest Filippo Bonanni (1638–1725). This was the first treatise entirely devoted to molluscs. [1] Martin Lister in 1685–1692 published Historia Conchyliorum, which was the first comprehensive conchological text, having over 1000 engraved plates.

A plate from Lister's book, showing what he calls buccinis shells

George Rumpf, or Rumphius (1627–1702) published the first mollusc taxonomy. He suggested "single shelled ones" (Polyplacophora, limpets, and abalone), "snails or whelks" (Gastropoda), and "two-shelled ones" (Bivalvia). Many of Rumpf's terms were adopted by Carl Linnaeus. Rumpf continued to do important scientific work after he went blind, working by touch.

The study of zoology, including conchology, was revolutionized by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus and his system of binomial nomenclature. 683 of the 4000 or so animal species he described are now considered to be molluscs, although Linnaeus placed them in several phyla at the time.[2] The English word "conchology" was coined in the 1770s by the British Sephardi naturalist Emanuel Mendez da Costa, who published The Elements of Conchology: or, an Introduction to the Knowledge of Shells in London in 1776.[3]

There have been many prominent conchologists in the past two centuries. The Sowerby family were famous collectors, dealers, and illustrators. John Mawe (1764–1829) produced arguably the first conchology guidebook, The Voyager's Companion or Shell-Collector's Pilot as well as The Linnæan System of Conchology. Hugh Cuming (1791–1865) is famous for his huge collection and numerous discoveries of new species.[4] Thomas Say wrote the fundamental work American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America, Illustrated From Coloured Figures From Original Drawings, Executed from Nature in six volumes (1830–1834).

R. Tucker Abbott was the most prominent conchologist of the 20th century. He authored dozens of books and was museum director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, bringing the world of seashells to the public. His most prominent works are American Seashells, Seashells of the World, and The Kingdom of the Seashell.

Many of the finest collections of seashells are private. John DuPont and Jack Lightbourne are known for their extensive collections. John DuPont donated his shell collection to the Delaware Museum of Natural History in 1984. Emperor Hirohito of Japan also amassed a huge collection, and was a competent and respected amateur conchologist.


Many museums worldwide contain very large and scientifically important mollusc collections. However, in most cases these are research collections, behind the scenes of the museum, and thus not readily accessible to the general public in the same way that exhibits are.

The largest assemblage of mollusc shells is housed at the Smithsonian Institution, which has c. 1 million lots[5] representing perhaps 50,000 species. [6]Another museum that has a shell collection is the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. This collection was donated by Dr. Phil Nudelman in 2013. The collection includes about 100,000 specimens and 24,000 species. Most of the collection came from the Indo-Pacific region, along with the Caribbean, and Mediterranean.




Like other scientific fields, conchologists have a number of local, national, and international organizations. There are also many organizations specializing in specific subareas.

Fake shellsEdit

Shell collectors who purchase shells from dealers may sometimes encounter shells which have been altered to represent new species or rare color varieties.[18] It is claimed that in previous centuries, fake examples of Epitonium scalare were created out of rice paste.[19] There are different ways to know if your shell is fake or not. Real shells are usually more cool to the touch which makes temperature a big factor in knowing if a shell is real or not.

Depictions of shells on stamps and coinsEdit

Shells have been featured on over 5,000 postage stamps worldwide.

Shells have also been featured on many coins, including the Bahamian dollar (1974), the Cuban peso (1981), the Haitian gourde (1973), the Nepalese rupee (1989) and Philippine peso (1993).

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Karin Leonhard (2007). "Shell Collecting. On 17th-Century Conchology, Curiosity Cabinets And Still Life Painting". Early Modern Zoology: The Construction of Animals in Science, Literature and the Visual Arts. Brill: 192–196. doi:10.1163/ej.9789004131880.i-657.52. ISBN 9789047422365.
  2. ^ "Jacksonville Shells – WWW.JAXSHELLS.ORG".
  3. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. conchology".[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ J. Cosmo Melville (Jan 1890). "British Pioneers in Recent Conchological Science. 1662–1858". Journal of Conchology. 6: 190–223.
  5. ^ a b Sierwald, P.; Bieler, R.; Shea, E.K.; Rosenberg, G. (1 December 2018). "Mobilizing Mollusks: Status Update on Mollusk Collections in the U.S.A. and Canada". American Malacological Bulletin. 36 (2): 177. doi:10.4003/006.036.0202.
  6. ^ "A one-of-a-kind shell collection". Burke Museum. Retrieved 2020-11-03.
  7. ^ "Marine, terrestrial, and freshwater molluscs". Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  8. ^ "Malacology Collection". Senckenberg. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  9. ^ a b "The collections". Mollusca types in Great Britain. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  10. ^ "Mollusca". National Museum Wales. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  11. ^ McGhie, Henry A. (17 December 2008). "Catalogue of type specimens of molluscs in the collection of The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester, UK". ZooKeys. 4: 1–46. doi:10.3897/zookeys.4.32. Archived from the original on 27 July 2009.
  12. ^ "Molluscs". University of Cambridge. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  13. ^ "BVC". Archived from the original on 2009-05-18. Retrieved 2006-02-06.
  14. ^ "German Shell Collector's Club".
  15. ^ "Home page – The Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland".
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Shells For Sale « The Largest Official Seashells Website, Conchology, Inc". Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  19. ^ Abbott, R. Tucker. Seashells of the world a guide to the better-known species. New York: Golden P, 1985.


External linksEdit

Conchological organizationsEdit