My watch list  


Part of a Series on


Branches of Zoology

Anthrozoology · Apiology
Arachnology · Cetology
Conchology · Entomology
Ethology · Herpetology
Ichthyology · Malacology
Mammalogy · Myrmecology
Neuroethology · Ornithology
Planktology · Paleozoology

Notable Zoologists

Georges Cuvier · Charles Darwin
William Kirby · Carolus Linnaeus
Konrad Lorenz · Thomas Say
Alfred Russel Wallace · more...




This box: view  talk  edit

Conchology is the scientific, semi-scientific, or amateur study of the shells of mollusks. It can include the study of the shells of land, freshwater, and marine mollusks.

In some respects conchology can be viewed simply as a branch of malacology, and indeed, conchology predated malacology as a field of study by several hundred years. In current times however, the term is often seen as rather archaic and the study is sometimes considered to be lacking in scientific rigor because of the limitations of looking only at the shell of an organism.

Some conchologists study these animal shells in order to gain an understanding of the diverse and complex taxonomy of mollusks. Some others simply appreciate them for their aesthetic value.


The definition of conchology is sometimes (especially in Europe) widened to include the study of the molluscan animals, which would technically be considered malacology.

Conchology may sometimes include the shells of other marine invertebrates, such as echinoderms, cnidarians, and crustaceans.

Conchology deals with all mollusk shells; however, squid and other cephalopods do not have outer shells (with the exception of the Nautiloidea), having evolved just to have an internal bone or shell, used for buoyancy or support. Some species have lost their "skeleton" (internal and/or external) altogether, while in some it has been replaced by a cartilaginous support structure. Because of this, conchologists deal mainly with gastropods (snails), bivalves, Polyplacophora (chitons) and Scaphopoda (tusk shells).


History of Conchology

Shell collecting, the "ancestor" or precursor of conchology, goes back for as long as there have been people and beaches: someone walking on the beach would pick up a shell for its beauty and maybe go out the next day to look for more. The fact that many people were already using molluscs as a food source added to its commonality. There have been seashell necklaces found from the Stone Age, some of which were found in areas removed from the ocean, indicating that they were traded. Shell necklaces and jewelry are found at almost all archaeological sites, including at ancient Aztec ruins, digs in ancient China, the Indus Valley, and Native American sites. During the Renaissance, people began taking interest in natural objects of beauty to put in wunderkammern. Shells became a large part of these collections. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, people began looking at shells with scientific interest. Lister in 1685-1692 published Historia Conchyliorum, which was the first comprehensive book on shells, with over 1000 engraved plates.


George Eberhard Rumpf, or Rumphius, (1627-1702) was another important early conchologist. He published the first classifications of molluscs into different groups; he suggested "Single Shelled Ones" (Polyplacophora, limpets, and abalones), "Snails or Whelks" (Gastropods), and "Two-Shelled Ones" (Bivalves). Rumphius came up with many of the names adopted by Linnæus, and continued to do important scientific work even after he went blind, working by feel. The study of shells, like all other branches of zoology, was revolutionized by Linnæus and his system of nomenclature.

After Linnæus, conchology/malacology became an official branch of zoology. There have been many prominent conchologists in the past few centuries; the Sowerby family were famous collectors and shell dealers, as well as being noted for their superb illustrations; John Mawe (1764 – 1829) produced arguably the first conchology how-to guide - The Voyager's Companion or Shell-Collector's Pilot as well as The Linnæan System of Conchology; Hugh Cuming (1791-1865) also is famous for his huge collection and number of new species discovered. Another fundamental work was American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America, Illustrated From Coloured Figures From Original Drawings, Executed from Nature (six volumes, 1830-1834), written by Thomas Say.

Perhaps the most prominent conchologist of the 20th century was R. Tucker Abbott. Author of dozens of books on conchology, Senior Advisor, Founding Director, and finally Museum Director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, Abbott brought the world of conchology to the public. His most prominent works are "American Seashells" 1955 & 1974, Seashells of the World, 1962, and The Kingdom of the Seashell, 1972. See Category:Conchologists for others. Many of the finest collections of seashells are in private hands. John du Pont, and Jack Lightbourne, among others, are known for extensive collections. Emperor Hirohito of Japan also amassed a huge collection, and was a competent and respected amateur conchologist. That said, John DuPont donated his shell collection to the Delaware Museum of Natural History (DMNH) in 1984, and by far the world's largest assemblage of mollusc shells is housed at the Smithsonian Institute, which has millions of lots and perhaps 50,000 species, versus perhaps 35,000 species for the largest private collections.

Uses of shells

Shells have been collected for millennia, but not just for their beauty.

  • Molluscs, especially bivalves such as clams, and mussels, have been an important food source for many different peoples around the world; one example of this is Midden heaps in North American archeology. Other molluscs commonly eaten include octopuses and squid, whelks, oysters, and scallops.
  • Shells have also been used as currency (ie, as a medium of exchange) in various places, including North America, Africa and the Caribbean. The most common shells to be used as currency have been Cypraea moneta Linne, the “money cowry”, and certain tusk shells, such as those used in North Western North America for many centuries. As well, the Native American wampum belts were made of the shell of the quahog mollusc. See Shell-money for more information.
  • Shells have often been used as tools due to their variety of shapes. Giant clams (Family Tridacnidae) have been used as bowls, and when big enough, even as bathtubs and baptismal fonts! The bailer volute is so named because Native Australians would use it to bail out their canoes. Many bivalves were used for scrapers, blades, clasps, and other such tools, due to their shape. Some gastropods have been used for oil lamps, the oil being poured in the cavity and the siphonal canal being a perfect holder for the wick.
  • Shells play a part in religion and spirituality, as well. In Botticelli’s Venus, the goddess Venus (goddess) is depicted as rising from the ocean on a scallop shell. The scallop shell is also considered the symbol of Saint James the Great. In Hinduism, the left-handed Chank shell is considered sacred to the god Vishnu. One who finds a left-handed Chank shell (one that coils to the left) is sacred to Vishnu, as well. The Chank shell plays an important role in Buddhism, as well. Cowries were often considered symbols of women, as their shape has some resemblance to a vagina. In Santeria, shells are used for divination purposes.
  • Shells also have been used as musical instruments, usually trumpets; the most prominent examples are the Triton shell (Charonia tritonis L.), used as a trumpet in Melanesian and Polynesian culture, and the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas L.), also often used as a trumpet.


  • Shells have a place in personal adornment, often being used as jewelry. Shell necklaces have always been very popular, and have been found in Stone Age graves as far inland as the Dordogne Valley in France. The Bullmouth Helmet was used to make cameos, and mother of pearl, from abalones or other bivalves, has often been used as decoration - for example, Pearly Kings and Queens wear buttons made of mother-of-pearl.
  • For decoration. For example, "sailor's valentines" were late nineteenth century decorative keepsakes which were made in the Caribbean, and which were often purchased by sailors to give to their loved ones back home. They consisted of elaborate arrangements of seashells glued into attractive symmetrical designs, which were encased on a wooden (usually octagonal) hinged box-frame. The patterns used often featured heart-shaped designs, or included a sentimental expression of love spelled out in small shells.
  • Some shell byproducts have also been used in industrial processes. The pen shell’s byssus was used to make rare, very fine, fabric reserved for royalty. Royalty also got the benefit of another molluscian byproduct: Tyrian purple, made from the ink glands of murex shells. It is similar to the t’khelet blue, made from Murex trunculus, used in tzitzit.
  • Finally, perhaps the most significant shell by-products are pearls created by oysters.

Applied conchology

Many conchologists are employed in the study of molluscs that are directly beneficial or harmful to humans. The study of beneficial molluscs, such as bivalves used for food like clams and mussels, or pearl oysters, is primarily focused on their ecology and life habits, the primary concern being the understanding of how to raise them and make them more productive.

Conversely, much of the study of harmful molluscs is focused on their physiology, with the goal of developing controls that are effective while minimizing undesirable side effects. One example of a harmful "introduced" & invasive mollusc is the zebra mussel, which has spread throughout North America, costing billions of dollars. Considerable recent effort have gone into finding biological controls such as species-specific parasites and diseases, as well as genetic controls.


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

  • Conchologists of America
  • Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland
  • Club Conchylia, the German/Austrian Society for Shell Collecting
  • Belgian Society for Conchology
  • Conquiliologistas do Brasil


Many museums contain very large and important mollusc collections.

  • Natural History Museum, USA National Museum of Natural History - The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has one of, if not the, finest shell collection in the world. (This science is researched here by Dr. Ellen Stronge, who basically studies marine biology but is also involved in Conchology) Some other museums are:
  • Natural History Museum, Vienna Naturhistorisches Museum.
  • Natural History Museum, Paris Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle
  • Natural History Museum, Berlin Humboldt Museum
  • Natural History Museum, London Natural History Museum
  • Natural History Museum, Brussels Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (one of the three biggest shell collections in the world)
  • Natural History Museum, Leiden Natural History Museum, Leiden
  • Natural History Museum, Sweden Swedish Museum of Natural History
  • The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel Island, Florida, which is the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to shells.

Identification of molluscs

Molluscs are usually identified more by general or regional shell collecting guides (example: Compendium of Seashells by Abbott and Dance), and specific books on different taxa of shell-bearing molluscs (monographs) or "iconographies" (limited text - mainly photographs), via illustrations and written descriptions, rather than by the use of Identification keys as in the case of plants. This is because the great amount of variability within many species and families makes the construction of truly useful keys extremely difficult. Because the phylum Mollusca contains a very large number of species and the characters separating them are unfamiliar this is often very difficult even for a specialist. Many molluscs remain undescribed by scientists, and large numbers of new species are published in the literature each year. There are an estimated 100,000 species worldwide.

Depictions of Molluscs

Shells have been featured on over 5,000 different stamps. This website has a gallery of the stamps, with pictures.

Shells have also been featured on many coins, including those of The Bahamas (1974), Cuba (1981), Haiti (1973), Nepal (1989) and The Philippines (1993).


  • National Geographic Magazine, March 1969, “The Magic Lure of Sea Shells”, Paul A. Zahl
  • Seashells of the Northern Hemisphere, 1990, Surrey, R. Tucker Abbott,
  • Man and Mollusc
  • History of conchology
  • Symphony of the Exotic Seas
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Conchology". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE