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Cowrie Seashells

Updated on March 19, 2015
BlossomSB profile image

Bronwen and her family have enjoyed collecting many things, including fans, clocks, books and shells.

Tiger Cowries (C. tigris Linné)
Tiger Cowries (C. tigris Linné) | Source

The Cowrie

Cowrie seashells are often prized in family shell collections and are admired for their smooth, glossy, porcelain-like appearance and feel and their bright, colourful patterns. Cowries are usually egg-shaped, with a flat under surface divided by a long, narrow aperture that often has toothed edges that may be coloured. The anterior end is more narrow and the spire is usually only visible in the juveniles of most species. Cowrie, or cowry, is the common name given to both the family of Cypraeidae for marine gastropod molluscs, or sea snails, and to their shells.

Most cowries live in the tropics and warmer seas, but some are found in more temperate seas as well.

Reproduction: Research is continuing into the reproduction of the cowrie, but it is thought that, like some other marine molluscs, it is a hermaphrodite. The eggs and sperm are released into the water and fertilization takes place without contact. Many eggs are placed in separate capsules and the parent broods over clusters of these. When the larva hatch, the veliger are free swimming. After about four weeks they sink to the sea floor where metamorphosis takes place. The shell develops but in the juvenile the aperture is wide. It gradually narrows over a period of about a year until the shell takes the adult shape.

Hundreds, even thousands of years ago the cowrie was used in some countries as a religious symbol and as currency for trade, payment and even for taxation. Although its use as money had been superseded in most areas. the cowrie is still looked on as valuable for a variety of uses.

Lynx Cowries (C. lynx Linné)
Lynx Cowries (C. lynx Linné) | Source

Names for Cowries

There are over one hundred and sixty different types of cowries and their names are interesting as they often describe the shell's appearance, the habit of the animal, its use, or the name of the person who first found it.

Most of the cowries in my collection are from the western Pacific: Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Cowries Named for Their Appearance:

  • Animals: The popular Tiger Cowrie (above) is one of the largest and is named for its markings, as is the Lynx Cowrie (above), which usually grows to about an inch or an inch and a half. The Tortoise Cowrie (below) grows to about four inches and really does look a little like a tortoise while the Mole Cowrie (below) has the dark markings front and back.
  • Shape: The Hump-back Cowrie grows to about three inches and is noticeably higher in shape. The Nucleus Cowrie grows to three-quarters of an inch and is rounded in appearance.
  • Markings: The Gold-ringer Cowrie grows from half to one inch and is very common. The gold ring is clearly visible.

Cowries Named for Their Habits:

The Wandering Cowrie.

Cowries Named for Their Use:

The Money Cowrie is very common. It grows to an inch and is unique with its colour and bumpy edges.

Cowries Named for The Person Who Found It:

The small Bartletti Cowrie.

Tortoise Cowrie (C. testudinaria L.)
Tortoise Cowrie (C. testudinaria L.) | Source
Mole Cowrie (Cypraea talpa L.)
Mole Cowrie (Cypraea talpa L.) | Source

Cowries as Currency

In times past shells were used as currency in almost every continent in the world and in many of the islands. A variety of shells were used in different countries, but the most common were the cowries and the most used of these was the cypraea moneta. This species was especially abundant in the Indian Ocean and was collected and taken to centres for dispersal in several countries.

Cowry money was currency in trade in Africa, America, Arabia, in parts of Asia including China and India, and in many of the Pacific Islands, including Papua New Guinea.

  • Africa: Cowries were used extensively in the slave trade and as currency in a number of African countries. It was even used for taxation in some countries.
  • America: Cowries were used extensively, firstly as decoration and later in some places as currency by indigenous people in North America, especially along the western seaboard, right from Alaska to California for nine thousand years. They were also used in South America in countries such as Brazil.
  • Arabia: Cowries were used as legal tender by Arabian traders.
  • Britain: Cowries were imported and used widely in the slave trade.
  • China: The cowrie was the earliest currency used in China, right from the sixteenth century BC. As they were scarce, copies were made, sometimes in silver or gold. Cowries were also used as decoration of clothing and has been found in tombs as money for the dead. The Chinese Character for money is based on the cowrie shell.
  • Fiji and Other Pacific Island Nations: The cowrie was used as decoration, currency and as a status symbol until quite recently.
  • India: Until comparatively recently cowries were used and exchanged for rupees.
  • Papua New Guinea: In some places, including New Britain, cowries are still used as currency and are exchanged for Kina.


Money Cowrie (Cypraea moneta L.)
Money Cowrie (Cypraea moneta L.) | Source
Gold-ringer Cowrie (cypraea annulus)
Gold-ringer Cowrie (cypraea annulus) | Source

Other Uses for Cowries

In past times, cowries were used widely especially in religion, fortune-telling, a sign of rank, in games and for decoration. Today they are still used in a number of different ways.

  • Religion: One type of cowrie is considered sacred by the Ojibway people of North America and is used in ceremonies. They have been used as lucky charms and as symbols of fertility.
  • Fortune-telling: In Brazil and some other countries, cowries are shaken in the hands and thrown onto a flat surface for the purpose of fortune-telling. They are also used for divination in parts of India.
  • Sign of Rank: In Fiji, the golden cowry was worn by chieftains as a sign of rank.
  • Games: Cowries have been used as a type of dice in board games and other games.
  • Decoration: Cowries are used as decoration as jewellery, on clothing, head-gear, handbags, plant-hangers, around picture-frames and in many other ways.

Note: Until quite recently the Tiger Cowrie was used in Europe for stretching socks and stockings as they were being darned.

Wandering Cowrie (C.
Wandering Cowrie (C. | Source
Underside of the Wandering Cowrie
Underside of the Wandering Cowrie | Source
Nucleus Cowrie (C. nucleus Linné)
Nucleus Cowrie (C. nucleus Linné) | Source
Miliaris Cowrie (C. miliaris Gmel.)
Miliaris Cowrie (C. miliaris Gmel.) | Source
Hump-back Cowrie (C. mauritiana L.)
Hump-back Cowrie (C. mauritiana L.) | Source

Rare Cowries

Around the world, there are several types of cowrie that are rare. Perhaps one of the most rare is the C. Bartletti, which measures about three-quarters of an inch. Viewed from the top it has a lovely lilac coloured edge and this is continued across the underside.

The Rev. H. K. Bartlett worked as a missionary with the Australian Methodist Overseas Mission for a number of years. He was greatly interested in the local environment of the southern islands off eastern Papua New Guinea and very knowledgeable about shells, especially cowries. In about 1946 he found a new species of cowrie. It was named C. Bartletti for him. There are two Bartletti Cowries in the Museum of South Australia and about five in private collections, so it is very rare indeed.

The rare C. bartletti Linné
The rare C. bartletti Linné | Source
The Lilac Underside of the Barteletii
The Lilac Underside of the Barteletii | Source

A Fun Use for a Cowrie

Where Did This One Come From?
Where Did This One Come From? | Source

Note: Many cowries are fairly similar in appearance. If any mistakes are found in the naming of the cowries shown above, please let me know in a comment so it can be rectified.


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    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Sherri: I'm so glad that you have a collection of Cowries, that's great. I'm afraid I'm not very knowledgeable about the value of shells, as I just like collecting them. I have seen the brown spotted ones at $6-10 each; a green and white one sounds unusual, so that may be really valuable. I just enjoy my collection and don't want to sell any. Please try somewhere else and they may be able to help you.

    • profile image

      Sherri: Australia 3 years ago

      I have a shelf full of Cowries from New Guinea. I am 42 and my Mum collected them. There are 2 12cm pure white ones...a white and green one...heaps of large brown spotted ones...I heard the large white ones are valuable and so may be the green and white one..is that true

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Janice: What a wonderful experience you had, living in such a place. it's such fun finding shells, isn't it? They mean so much more when you find them yourself and you know the story behind each one in your collection. Lovely!

    • profile image

      Janice 3 years ago

      I lived in Micronesia during the mid 1960s; and while living there, I went shell hunting quite often on the coral reef(s) that linked the islands of our atol together The island I lived on is named Kwajalein and is 2 1/2 miles long and a 1/2 mile wide. Furthermore, during the years I and my family lived in Hawaii, I found shells (some very rare) along the beaches. We have many brownie and money cowries in addition to many rare ones of the Pacific Ocean.

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Eiddwen: I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Eddy. Thank you for your vote and I hope you have a lovely day, too. I always like Fridays, even now when I'm supposed to be retired!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      A great hub Blossom and I vote up plus share. Enjoy your day.

      Eddy.

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      We all make mistakes and I knew what you meant, so 'no problem.'

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I'm so sorry for that typo. I meant to say, "my mother used to collect shells...." Thanks for the response. :-)

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Genna East: You'd have some pretty ones from there. I think they're my favourites, too. Thank you for your vote.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      What a beautiful hub. My other used to collect shells from a variety of beaches on Marco Island, Florida, years ago, and collected a number of these shells. I still have her collections, and the Cowries are among my favorites. Voted Up. :-)

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Lipnancy: They are often sold in many places around the world. The Cowrie man sounds like fun.

      Dim Flaxenwick: The tiger is one of the bigger ones, too, and so popular in shell collections. Thank you for your lovely comments.

      teaches12345: The markings are lovely and each one seems a little different and most people do seem to enjoy having them in a collection. Thank you for your vote.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      I have a couple of these in my seashell collection. I love the shape and markings on them and they are so pretty to look at when sorting through the collection. I didn't know where they came from, so I thank you for the education. Voted up!

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 4 years ago from Great Britain

      I had no idea that these types of shell even had the name Cowrie!.. Deary me, my education was sadly lacking until I came across this hub. I can see why the tiger cowrie is named as such., However it is going to take me some time to get to know so many others.

      Next time I can, I´m going to make a concerted effort to seek out this type of shell.

      You made them all so beautiful. Wonderful, interesting hub. Thank you, Blossom.

    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      Cowries are cool. We used to find them all the time on our travels. I have a silly little Cowrie man on my end table that my husband bought me.

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Kris Heeter: How lovely! Memories are important.

      aviannovice: The problem is - where to put them. I think I come from a long line of bower-birds!

      always exploring: Putting them in your rock garden is a good idea. Looking for shells, pretty leaves, even feathers was something my mother encouraged us to do and now it's difficult to stop!

      AliciaC: They are beautiful and thank you for your lovely comments on my photos, they took me quite a while and there were some I couldn't find in my book to identify so I left them out.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The cowries in the photos are very beautiful, Blossom! Cowries were the first shells that I learned to identify when I was a child, and I've always loved to look at them. Thank you for all the interesting information as well as the beautiful photos.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This is so interesting. I love looking for shells. I have a few scattered among my rock garden. Thank you once again for sharing the history of shells and so many more artifacts...Cheers..

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      These are all amazingly beautiful. you must have one heck of a shell collection. While we were living in NJ when I was little, my mother had a friend that went to FL. She brought back many beautiful shells for me.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

      I have a fond memory of one that my grandmother had when I was little. That was one of the treasures I used to love looking at in her house when we would go to visit. I had completely forgotten about that until reading your hub - thanks for bringing back a warm and fond memory!

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      femmeflashpoint: They really are interesting and we do seem to love collecting things, especially shells.

      pstraubie48: It's a great hobby. Thank you for the comment on the photos.

      Jackie Lynnley: They really do appeal to us with their lovely patterns, shapes and they're something we enjoy touching, too.

      Sinea Pies: Thank you for your lovely comments. They seem to appeal to both adults and children.

      flashmakeit: Our love of shells seems to be an almost primeval instinct. I knew about their use as currency from living in PNG for a few years.

      Mary615: I love that idea - of carving the Lord's Prayer. It must have taken a long time to do and I'm sure it wouldn't be easy, either.

      Janhorner: There are so many interesting things in the world, aren't there?

      FreezeFrame 34: Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Frank Atanacio: Ha! I think I like this kind of shelling better! It is fun and so much more interesting to find our own rather than buying them. It gets us out and enjoying the fresh air, too.

      North Wind: Hope you didn't break a tooth! When we were young our Mother taught us to collect shells along the beach and to admire the amazingly different patterns.

      shiningirisheyes: That's because Mother Nature has so much to teach us about God's wonderful and amazingly divers creation.

      btrbell: There are over 160 different kinds of cowries, so there are lots more than the ones I have.

      mollymeadows: I find them very pretty, too. Sometimes I think I should have been born a bower-bird!

      The Dirt Farmer: Thank you for your great comment and vote. Glad you enjoyed it.

      KerryAnita: It's such a thrill to find one, especially if it is still nice and shiny and hasn't been worn down by being rolled around on the sand.

    • KerryAnita profile image

      KerryAnita 4 years ago from Satellite Beach, Florida

      Cowies are such beautiful shells! I would love to find one someday!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Your collection is beautiful, and the history of cowries fascinating. Shared & voted up. I'll pin later if I can. Option not available now. (:

    • mollymeadows profile image

      Mary Strain 4 years ago from The Shire

      These are so pretty. I have a bowl full of shells in the living room; now I'll have to go and look at them, lol! Thanks for the interesting information, Blossom!

    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 4 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      How interesting! I had no idea there were so many different types of cowries! I didn't even know that was their name! Thank you for such a comprehensive, informative hub!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Your love and respect for Mother Nature is so clear in your many informative and well-researched hubs. Another fine job.

    • North Wind profile image

      North Wind 4 years ago from The World (for now)

      I never knew the name of these shells but I always found them beautiful. As a little girl I thought that they resembled peanuts and so I bit one once. lol!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 4 years ago from Shelton

      Shelling? I thought that meant bombing the hell out of a poor village.. to get results.. but Im so glad it's not.. I don't collect shells nor have I ever but after this hub I kind of regret that .. looks like educational fun for young and old alike :)

    • FreezeFrame34 profile image

      FreezeFrame34 4 years ago from Charleston SC

      Very interesting hub and beautiful pictures as well! All around great hub!

    • profile image

      Janhorner 4 years ago

      What an interesting hub! I have never heard of these shells. They are quite splendid and I can see why someone would want a collection of them. The history is very colorful; to think they were used as money; something I would never have guessed.

      Voted up and thanks for sharing this.

      Jan

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      I live near the ocean in S. Fl. and we have lots of shells, but none of these beauties! I have a Cowrie shell that has been in my family for many years, it has the "Lord's Prayer" engraved on it. Quite beautiful.

      I voted this Hub UP, etc. and will share.

    • flashmakeit profile image

      flashmakeit 4 years ago from usa

      I have a piece of art work with Cowrie Seashells on it. Someone gave it to me. I was surprise to learn that some many countries once used Cowrie shells for currency.

    • Sinea Pies profile image

      Sinea Pies 4 years ago from Northeastern United States

      As a child I received a set of sea shells as a gift. The Cowries were always my favorite. They are absolutely beautiful. Thank you for teaching me about them with this great hub. Voted up and beautiful. :)

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      How beautiful. I have a few of the first ones up there but had not seen many, so thank you. I love sea shells and have been planning on doing some craft with them if I can ever decide what. I have some picture frames and this and that with sea shells. What is so special about them? Something for sure. Thanks for such an interesting article. ^

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Shelling is one of my MOST favorite activities to engage in. It is so exciting to find that new and wondrous shell; the one you do not have in your collection. Each year we try to travel to the other coast of FL and go in search of amazing shells.

      Thank you for sharing all of this interesting information and the stellar photographs. ps

    • profile image

      femmeflashpoint 4 years ago

      Blossom,

      This was not only incredibly interesting, but the photos are awesome!!

      Shells are special to many of my kin and there are several in my family who either have collections, or at least have jewelry made from them.

      It never dawned on me to research the names of them until this article, and now you've piqued my interest!

      femme