ID your beachcombing finds with our pictorial guide to North American shells.

By Allen B. Bunting and Gayle Christopher
October 23, 2006
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Jean Allsopp

Every shore lover has a single prized shell or even a collection, but few beachcombers know the story behind their finds.

To help you identify your favorite coastal sourvenirs, we have assembled this useful, but by no means comprehensive, guide to North American seashells. For more in-depth information, look to The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Seashells , and the Peterson Field Guide to Pacific Coast Shells or Peterson Field Guide to Shells of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and West Indies .

Do you have…

One complete shell?
If so, it belonged to a gastropod. Gastropod, the largest group of mollusks, includes about 7,000 saltwater species in North American waters. Most have one coiled shell that grows throughout the organism's lifetime. Most gastropods are right-handed, meaning their shells open on the right side. These shells come in a variety of shapes and sizes ranging from about 1/8 inch to 2.5 feet.

Commonly known examples are whelks, limpets, top shells, conchs, periwinkles, and murex. To see these and more, click here

Two halves joined together, or one half of a whole?
This is likely the shell of a bivalve. These can range from 1/8 inch to 4 feet in length, varying a good deal in thickness, shape, and sculpturing. Most bivalve shells have teeth along the interior upper edge of the shell, and some have teeth along their hinge line.

Commonly known examples are scallops, oysters, clams, and mussels. To see these and more, click here.