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Cone Shells -- Beautiful Beachside Danger

Updated on October 3, 2014

Yup--These Animals Have Harpoons with Venom! Be Very Careful When Handling Live Ones!

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Don't let its size or the fact that it resembles a "snail" fool you--a cone shell has the stealth, speed, and deadliness of a stealth fighter!

It's always a thrill to find a beautiful shell when you are walking along the beach or snorkeling or SCUBA diving. Believe me--I've had the experience of finding beautiful shells either on the beach or in the warm waters of a coral reef.

But how you handle that shell if you decide to pick it up could be the difference between life and death--namely, yours. Your death, that is.

When most folks think about molluscs--snails, if you wish--they think of slow-moving docile critters that may be tasty as the French "escargot" or the tasty abalone.

But one family of shells has the stealth, speed, and deadliness of a stealth fighter--the cone shells. Not all cone shells are deadly--but they all are capable of zapping with a venom-laden harpoon.

Some of the videos included below illustrate the stealth, the speed, and the deadliness of these animals.

I remember a story from when I lived on Guam.... where folks found a sailor dead on a Guam beach one morning. At first, foul play was suspected--the sailor had been on shore-leave from a visiting Navy ship.

However, after medical examiners started their "Crime Scene Investigation"--and had removed the sailor's clothes to perform an autopsy to figure out the cause of death--they found a surprising twist. A small shell dropped out of the sailor's shirt pocket. The shell was a dead cone shell. Evidently, the sailor had been stung by the animal before the animal died.

The shell has caused the demise of many amateur collectors--and even expert shell collectors who let their guard down and got careless.

Pacific Islanders treat the animals with great respect. They pick up the shells only by the broad end and never carry the live animals in anything less than metal or glass or wood containers.

When we lived on Guam, we heard stories of islanders who had been hauling in a fishing net and who got stung by a cone shell that had been on the net. We heard that the islander would immediately pull out a machete and lop off the stung appendage. To the islanders, going without a hand or arm was better than dying of paralysis?


Read Up On Shells--You May Have to Shell Out a Bit, But It's Worth It! - If you live near a beach, these references will be well worth getting ... and even if y

When I lived on Guam, I needed some of these references to figure out what I was seeing whenever I did any beach-coming, reef-walking, snorkeling, and other activities near the water. Now that I live quite far from a convenient beach, I still enjoy browsing through my reference books like these just for some inspiration and fond memories of those shells that I saw in their natural habitat!

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Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water... Forget Jaws... Worry About DARTS!

Some Shells Have Teeth--Cones Have Harpoons! These are called "Radula" by Biologists.

Marbled cone (Conus marmoreus), from the Western Pacific Island of Guam, U.S.A.
Marbled cone (Conus marmoreus), from the Western Pacific Island of Guam, U.S.A.

With most snails and other molluscs, the radula teeth are attached to something like a tongue with which the snail scrapes or rasps against food substances to "lap up their food". (If you want to see a mollusc's "tongue" in action--watch one of the marine snails creeping up the side of an aquarium--you'll be able to see it open its mouth and "lick" the algae off the side of the glass.)

Cones, however, have a venom gland connected to each of their loosely-attached teeth. When they position the "tooth", which even has a barbed point like a harpoon, at the end of their proboscis, and then force a blast of water through the proboscis--it propels the "harpoon" with enough speed to penetrate skin.

This is the only way to safely hold one (no-one is home inside the shell!)

Large Conus Litteratus Seashell Letter Cone Shell
Large Conus Litteratus Seashell Letter Cone Shell

If you don't want to be stung, but you're interested in holding one of these things... then this may be the safest way to do it. This is only the shell (not the animal that lives inside it)... so you don't have to be worried about being zapped!

 

The Venom.... With Some Species of Cone Shells, Strong Enough to Kill an Elephant in 3 Minutes!

Some of books on these shells recommend treating victims of cone shell stings as one would a snake bite. Namely, the victim should be rushed to a hospital (of course, in many places where you'd find these things, there aren't very many medical facilities within even a 747's reach).

A classic book for folks interested in the cone shells of Thailand!

Cone Shells of Thailand
Cone Shells of Thailand

If this isn't exactly the kind of shell reference you have in mind, go ahead and click on the item below -- and you'll notice that Amazon suggests a lot of other alternatives that might strike your fancy!

This book provides a lot of information on the various species of cone shells found in the waters of Thailand! If you are interested in the shells of the world--particularly the cone shells--this is a book you must have!

 

One case of cone-shell sting in Apia, Western Samoa, was treated with Anthisan and adrenalin--which alleviated the chest-constriction but still took three months for recovery from the paralysis.

But, depending on the species that delivered the sting--it can be as mild as a bee-sting or quicker acting and more deadly than cobra venom. Not something to take chances with.

Variety of cone shells typically found on tropical reefs -- these are from the Western Pacific Island of Guam, U.S.A.

Variety of cone shells typically found on tropical reefs -- these are from the Western Pacific Island of Guam, U.S.A.
Variety of cone shells typically found on tropical reefs -- these are from the Western Pacific Island of Guam, U.S.A.
Young 'textile cone' (Conus textile), from the Western Pacific Island of Guam, U.S.A.
Young 'textile cone' (Conus textile), from the Western Pacific Island of Guam, U.S.A.

But There's Also Good News! Cone Venom Also Has Positive Medical Uses!

As early as 1967, cone venom was found to assist in heart operations when it was administered in measured doses to aid as a muscle relaxant.

Since cone stings are still common in Australia and Asia, a lot of research still continues in how the venom of cone shells works. Lots of stuff to still learn!

Head-first, Tail-first, the fish gets eaten!

Textile Cone as Featured in "Cloth of Gold" -- The Original Hawaii Five-O Series - Season 4, Episode 20

A show that, although fictional, shows how deadly these creatures are -- and has an interesting explanation and commentary with diagrams by the "scientist" at the marine biology facility. Look for this part of the episode at about 33:06 into the show.

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Animated Diagram Showing Shell's Harpoon!

Copyright and Attribution Notice

NOTE: All photographic images in this website, with exception of those obviously in the Amazon, eBay, YouTube, and similar sections, were shot on my own camera by me and are thus mine. Likewise, the narrative is original and based on my experiences. Your mileage may vary.

© 2007 David Gardner

Don't Dart Away! Drop a Note (No Poison-Pen Letters, However!)

Submit a Comment

  • Anthony Altorenna profile image

    Anthony Altorenna 4 years ago from Connecticut

    Wow, I've never heard of a poisonous Cone snail. I'm glad that these aren't found along the beaches of Cape Cod!

  • pauline60 profile image

    pauline60 4 years ago

    Watched one of the videos - wish I hadn't! That is seriously scary.

  • SciTechEditorDave profile image
    Author

    David Gardner 4 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

    @CatJGB: Hi CatJB!

    Yup -- if you live in Australia, you live where there's a LOT of dangerous stuff in the water and on the beach (and inland, too. But that's another story!). Where I lived on Guam -- which is in the Western Pacific (north of the equator -- but still, in a similar part of the ocean as Australia's east coast), most of the live cone shells would be IN the water. But if the cones get caught in the "inter-tidal zone" (between high tide and low tide), they might not get out of that area before the tide goes out. Then, unsuspecting beach walkers might encounter them in what they think is "dry beach."

    Be VERY careful about picking up what you think is a "dead one" ... because they will pull inside and hide until they feel things are safe ... then they can sneak out and zap whoever is holding their shell. It's best to pick up shells with metal tongs and then carry them in a metal can (like a coffee can) with a plastic lid, then transferring them to a place under a board out in the yard (away from the house) to attract the ants to finish cleaning out the insides. Then, after a few weeks, hose the shells off to get the nice clean shells (with no nasty stinging things inside). The most dangerous cones are the "fish-eaters" -- they have a wide opening for their shell's entrance. You can get a guide to the venomous cone shells most likely in any of the bookstores in your area of Australia .. or you can get some guides to shells here on this Squidoo lens. Be safe -- and make sure your kiddos and family are safe --- by recognizing the dangerous critters in your area. Thanks for dropping by!

  • lesliesinclair profile image

    lesliesinclair 4 years ago

    This is shocking. I'd no idea that any of those beautiful little shells could house ferocious creatures.

  • profile image

    CatJGB 4 years ago

    Holy cow, those videos are amazing! We camped by a beach recently with loads of beautiful, tiny cone shaped shells. My husband scared the bejeezus out of the kids by telling them about cone shells. They were pretty cautious after that. We're in Australia, we didn't see any live ones though, and how do you tell if it's a poisonous one? Or are all cone shells poisonous? I have a photo of some of the shells we found on my lens 'camping at bear gully' if you're interested in seeing them.

    Very interesting page!

  • SciTechEditorDave profile image
    Author

    David Gardner 5 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

    @LynetteBell: :-) Well, the *shells* aren't poisonous ... it's the critters that live in them that have the *venom* in their "darts". Something to be aware of if you are walking along the beach barefooted or reaching into the sand to grab a shell... that's why we always used *tongs* (kitchen tongs) to pick up shells ... and we'd put the shells in a tin-can with a plastic lid when out exploring, so we'd avoid being in contact with the shell. The first few weeks we were on the island of Guam, we attended "Orientation" sessions... and one was a very educational piece about this shell and how dangerous it was. The presentation got my attention--never forgot what we learned. Glad to introduce folks to hidden dangers. Be safe!

  • LynetteBell profile image

    LynetteBell 5 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

    I never heard of poison shells before...creepy!

  • profile image

    anonymous 5 years ago

    I've heard of the cone shells before and knew about the danger they pose to anyone in their vicinity who might touch them, whether accidentally or intentionally. Good lens with good information.

  • Ben Reed profile image

    Ben Reed 5 years ago

    Used to collect shells as a young boy. Always fascinating,

  • Mermaiden profile image

    Mermaiden 5 years ago

    Shell collecting is one of my passions (I probably have about 5,000 shells!). On the west coast of Florida the alphabet cone is the most commonly found cone shell.

  • SciTechEditorDave profile image
    Author

    David Gardner 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

    @randyradley: Yes. I remember the "Shells of Micronesia" place along Marine Drive in Tamuning/Agana (Hagatna). They probably went out of business a bunch of years ago (I was on Guam between 1969 and 1981). For selling your cones, it probably depends on where you are. If in Hawaii, Guam, or coastal areas, you have a better chance. Otherwise, your best bet might be eBay. I have an extensive shell collection that I sort of used when I was a biology (marine biology) major at the University of Guam for some of my reference work.

  • profile image

    anonymous 6 years ago

    Wow! I was a scuba-diving instructor many years ago and I had no idea that these pretty "shells" were deadly! Excellent lens! I'll remember your words and re-read this lens when I go swimming or diving next.

  • profile image

    Oosquid 6 years ago

    Wow! Who'd have thought it. Thanks for the warning, killer shells is something I'd not heard of. Interesting lens.

  • profile image

    anonymous 6 years ago

    Beautiful shells aren't they Dave? I have some on a shelf in my office. Love the look and fell of them.

  • kateloving profile image

    Kate Loving Shenk 7 years ago from Lancaster PA

    Excellent beginnig guide to sea shells! Thank you!

  • CCGAL profile image

    CCGAL 7 years ago

    Wow - I had no idea that such lovely shells harbored such a deadly threat. Once again, you've opened my eyes to something I didn't know existed. I so enjoy learning from your lenses!

  • profile image

    randyradley 7 years ago

    I still have a pristine set of 7 deadly cones that I collected live from the waters off Guam in the early 1970's. I am seeking a reputable resource for purchasing shells. There used to be a place on Guam called Shells of Micronesia, bet recent searches failed to turn it up. Any suggestions?

  • naturegirl7s profile image

    Yvonne L. B. 8 years ago from Covington, LA

    This is another one that I knew nothing about. Great lens. Welcome to the Naturally Native Squids group. Don't forget to add your lens link to the appropriate plexo and vote for it.

  • Classic LM profile image

    Classic LM 9 years ago

    You did it again! Surprising and packed with information! Happy Holidays! :o)