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Calliostoma tigris Calliostoma tigris.JPG
Calliostoma tigris
Shell of Lobatus gigas, the queen conch Sea shell (Trinidad & Tobago 2009).jpg
Shell of Lobatus gigas , the queen conch

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.


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 Some groups, such as the sea slug nudibranchs, have lost their shells altogether, while in others it has been replaced by a protein support structure.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 collecting

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


Shell collecting, the precursor of conchology, dates back thousands of years. Archaeologists have sometimes uncovered Stone Age oceanic seashell necklaces in areas far from the ocean, indicating that they were traded, and shell jewellery has been found at archaeological sites around the world.

Sea shells from Recreatione dell'occhio e della mente by Filippo Bonanni Illustrations of various sea shells Wellcome L0060694.jpg
Sea shells from Recreatione dell'occhio e della mente by Filippo Bonanni

During the Renaissance people began collecting natural objects of beauty for private cabinets of curiosities. Because of their attractiveness, variety, durability and ubiquity, shells frequently became a large part of such collections. Scientific interest began to develop towards the end of the 17th century, and in 1681 The Jesuit priest Filippo Bonanni published the two-volume atlas Ricreazione dell'occhio et della mente nell'osservazione delle chiocciole ("Recreation of the eye and of the mind in the observation of molluscs"), the first treatise devoted entirely to mollusc shells. [1] In 1692 Martin Lister published Historia Conchyliorum , a comprehensive conchological text with more than 1,000 engraved plates.

A plate from Lister's book, showing what he calls buccinis shells Lister Martin conchs 1770.png
A plate from Lister's book, showing what he calls buccinis shells

George Rumpf, or "Rumphius", (1627–1702) published the first genuine mollusc taxonomy. He suggested the categories "single shelled ones" (modern Polyplacophora, limpets, and abalone), "snails or whelks" (Gastropoda), and "two-shelled ones" (Bivalvia). He did not include the tusk shells or the internal shells of the cephalopods.

Many of Rumpf's terms were later adopted by Carl Linnaeus. The study of zoology, including conchology, was revolutionized by Linnaeus and his system of binomial nomenclature. Six hundred eighty three of the approximately 4,000 animal species Linnaeus described are now considered to be molluscs, although Linnaeus placed them in several different 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]

Since 1700 a number of prominent conchologists have published their studies of shells. 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 arguably the most prominent conchologist of the 20th century, authoring dozens of books and working as museum director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. His most best-known works are American Seashells, Seashells of the World, and The Kingdom of the Seashell. John DuPont is also known for his extensive collection which he donated to the Delaware Museum of Natural History in 1984. The Japanese emperor Hirohito also amassed a huge collection, and was a competent and respected amateur conchologist.


Many museums worldwide contain very large and scientifically important shell collections. However, in most cases these are research collections not as readily accessible to the general public as exhibits.

As of 2020 the world's largest assemblage of mollusc shells was held by the Smithsonian Institution, which has c. 1 million lots [5] representing perhaps 50,000 species. [6] The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture also has a large collection which was donated by Dr. Phil Nudelman in 2013. It includes about 100,000 specimens and 24,000 species, mostly from the Indo-Pacific region, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean.

US [5]



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

Depictions of shells on stamps and coins

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

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Malacology Study of the Mollusca

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Tom Iredale British ornithologist and malacologist

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Hugh Cuming

Hugh Cuming was an English collector who was interested in natural history, particularly in conchology and botany. He has been described as the "Prince of Collectors".

Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a museum devoted to every aspect of seashells, conchology, and malacology, including the paleontological and archeological/anthropological aspects of the study of shells. The museum is located in the city of Sanibel on Sanibel Island on the Gulf of Mexico coast of Southwest Florida.

Edgar Albert Smith

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Cau del Cargol

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Philip Pearsall Carpenter

Philip Pearsall Carpenter Rev. Dr. was ordained Presbyterian minister in England in 1841, and earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in 1860. His field work as a malacologist or conchologist in North America is still well regarded today. A man of many talents, he wrote, published, taught, and was a volunteer explaining the growing study of shells in North America.

Sylvanus Charles Thorp Hanley (1819–1899) was a British conchologist and malacologist who published the first book on shells using the then new technique of photography. He authored Conchologia indica with William Theobald which was a treatise on the shells of British India. The plates were drawn and lithographed by George Brettingham Sowerby the younger, who was well known for writing and illustrating excellent works of natural history, especially conchological works. Sowerby became the best illustrator of conchological works of his time, illustrating such classics as Reeve's monumental twenty-volume Conchologia Iconica.

William Henry Benson was a civil servant in British India and an amateur malacologist. He made large collections of molluscs and described numerous species from the U.K., India and South Africa.

William Harper Pease

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John Read le Brockton Tomlin

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Yoichirō Hirase

Yoichirō Hirase was a Japanese malacologist and business man. His son, Shintarō Hirase, (1884-1939) was also a malacologist. The majority of his collection of molluscs were destroyed during World War II.

Mattheus Marinus Schepman

Mattheus Marinus Schepman was a Dutch malacologist. He was one of the foremost collectors of mollusc shells in the Netherlands, and was also high on the overall list of European collectors.

Born Eleanor Fisher, the first of Ernest and Janet Fisher's two daughters, in Belfast on 16 March 1908, but known even then as "Nora", Nora Fisher McMillan, as she became, was a larger-than-life self-taught expert in natural history, especially conchology, specialising in post-glacial fresh-water Mollusca, but with broad academic interests in the history of natural history, geology and other areas, as well as being a keen amateur botanist, naturalist and local historian. She wrote prolifically, with over 400 publications to her name.

George William Chaster was an English doctor, entomologist, and conchologist.


  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".
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  5. 1 2 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 .
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Conchological organizations