Britain's shores are littered with bivalve and gastropod shells. Take a closer look the next time you walk along the shore and you might be surprised at what you find – a pointy top shell, a colorful wristlet or a crochet hook.
Each species in our ID guide has specific patterns and markings and varies in shape and size, offering clues to the animals' evolution and daily lives.
Find out more with our expert guide on how to identify the most common shells found along itBritish coastlineand the best places to find them. We also have guides forjellyfish,seabirdsandbeachcombing.
This tall, spiky cone can reach 3cm in length. It belongs to a carnivorous snail that hunts marine worms, and like the cone snail, it uses its poisonous rod to immobilize and stun its prey.
It prefers warmer waters but is common anywhere with muddy sediments except the south-east coast of England.
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Beachcombing involves "combing" the beach to see what interests you can find./Credit: Getty
Telin of the Baltic,Macoma baltica
This plump, almost circular shell is about 2.5 cm long and belongs to a small saltwater clam that lives just below the surface of sand and mud.
The shells can be pink, yellow, purple and white. Common in estuaries, except in the south.
living wedge shell,Donax vittatus
Wedge-shaped shell up to 4 cm long in glossy white, yellow-purple or brown. These were once home to a bivalve mollusc of the order Cardiida, and it lived near the surface of sandy beaches.
Common on all coasts.
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Bluntly lighter,Mya truncata
Large shell up to 7.5 cm long, with colors ranging from white to dark brown. This bivalve burrows to impressive depths in mixed sand, mud and rocky shores.
Public throughout the UK.
common bone,For the success of Cerastoderma
Fan-shaped shell with radiating ribs up to 5 cm. These once housed the famous edible bone, the kind you can still buy on Broadstairs Beach and other fish market stalls.
Widely distributed in estuaries and sandy bays throughout the UK – up to 10,000 per m². They burrow about 5 cm below the surface.
common butterfly,A popular dish
A familiar gray or white conical shell with radiating ridges up to 6 cm high, often found pressed against pond walls at low tide. When the tide comes in, however, they wake up and move around, nibbling on the algae with their hard tongues – which are the strongest known biological structure in the world.
Found on rocky shores throughout the UK.
common oyster,You eat oysters
Also known as native oysters, these incredible bivalves live on the seabed in shallow coastal estuaries. The shells are oval or pear-shaped, up to 11 cm in diameter. The two halves of the shell are very different – one smooth and flat, the other rough and concave. Widespread but less common on the east coast.
- Oyster stocks are severely depleted across the UK. See John Craven's report,Can oysters save our seas?for the full story.
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Oysters at low tide/Credit: Getty
common myrtle,Lictorian lictor
This black or gray conical shell reaches 5 cm in height and is found everywhere, especially on rocky shores. It is a gastropod that is also known as "edible myrtle". Males are distinguished during the summer by the presence of a penis on the right side of their body.
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common hare,Pholas dactylus
This large, fragile shell was once home to an amazing creature – a glow-in-the-dark bivalve!
As a larva, it burrows into soft rock to create a burrow for itself and then lives there, filter-feeding on organic matter in the water. When alive, it glows blue-green around the edges of its shells, due to the presence of a bioluminescent protein. This has been extracted and used in medicine as a marker to predict human disease.
The shell is up to 12 cm long and has ridges and radiating lines. It is dull-white or gray in color and is largely found on the southern coasts.
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common razor clam,Being great
Unmistakable thin shell up to 25cm long – very common in sandy bays and estuaries. Often washed up in huge numbers after storms, the animals themselves live buried deep beneath the sand. The shells are named after the traditional razor blades used by barbers and in Scotland are called 'spots' after the jet of water they push behind them when they burrow at low tide.
common struggle,Butchin nodded
This shell once belonged to the largest of the sea snails. It is a yellow-brown spiral shell up to 10 cm high and 6 cm wide. Very common. Mobile, the common shell is carnivorous and preys on small bivalves, as well as scavenging for carcasses. It is also common to find its empty egg cases washed up on the beach: they spawn in batches of up to 2,000 at a time.
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Spiral, up to 6 cm long, in cream, yellow or grey. It is a sea snail, smaller than the common one, smoother than the net and rounder than the oyster drill.
Common on all rocky shores where it feeds on barnacles and clams – its favorite snack.
flat myrtle,The beach is dull
Small, variegated shell up to 1.5 cm that comes in many different colors from olive green to brown, red and yellow. This is a small sea snail often found among seaweed - more commonly Bladderwrack. It is an expert at camouflage and is often mistaken for the air sacs that make algae float.
gray top shell,Steromphala cineraria
This small shell is 1.7 cm wide and once belonged to a sea snail. Gray or pale yellow with brown or purple streaks. A herbivore that grazes on algae, it is common on all coasts.
common clam,Mytolis enoulis
Purple or blue shell, 5-10 cm long when mature. Found in clumps attached to rock surfaces, piers and sheltered harbors. Very common all along the coast on intertidal rocks.
shell necklace,Exhalation chain
A smooth, golden-brown shell up to 3 centimeters high, which once belonged to a sea snail. Common on sandy shores.
Painted top shell,Calliostoma zizyphinum
Conical purple/pink and brown striated shell, up to 3 cm tall. Very common on kelp-covered rocky shores, this small sea snail lives at the bottom of the rocks and grazes on the kelp.
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Drops the lime,A whore woman
Oval shell up to 5 cm long with a large opening below, up to half the length of the body. First introduced by accident on a shipment from North America, slippers are a huge pest of oysters and clams. They live stacked on top of each other and are mainly found on the coasts of southern Britain.
Thick upper shell,Phorcus lineatus
Turban-like wire up to 3 cm high in green, gray or black, with a mother-of-pearl interior. With a "tooth" right inside its mouth, it is also known as a toothed upper shell.
Extremely common on the rocky coasts of south-west England, its northernmost point isWales.
thin line,Macomangulus slender
This fragile, flattened shell is up to 3cm long and comes in shades of pink and yellow. It is common on sandy shores, inhabits fine sand and the bottom of the sea, burying up to 12 centimeters deep.