Q: How do you collect cones ?

A: Ellen Bulger enquired on CONCH-L (28/10/01) as to how to safely collect cone shells.
Ellen wrote: "Would any of you seasoned Pacific collectors tell me what you use to grab, then contain, cones when you are out collecting? I've had folks tell me they just picked up geography cones with their bare hands, but I'm too chicken for that. Just don't simply tell me to leave them!"


When I picked up cones in the pacific I put them in a plastic milk carton attached to my belt. I would cut a large cross on the main body of the carton so I could push the shell in the cartoon but they could not get back out. The plastic protected you if they got upset. Always use thick gloves and Phil Crandall ( spent years in Oki) always said to pick them up from the larger end.
Everett Long

First you could list the dangerous species and learn how to identify them. Here, in New-Caledonia, the most dangerous ones are : C.geographus, C.striatus, C.tulipa and C.textile; the following species present a real danger : C.aulicus, C.marmoreus, C.omaria, C.magnificus and C.magus. All these shells are easily recognizable...
Even wearing gloves, we always avoid handling cones too long time.We place them in a small hermetic plastic box in which we first put one or two folded plastic bags to protect them from shocks. Then we put the box under our wetsuit if we are skin diving or in a pocket of our stabilizing jacket when we are scuba diving and Bob's your uncle!
Solange and Serge Hervieux

Hi Ellen,
You already got some pretty good general advice about collecting cones in the Pacific, and you aren't likely to have much trouble since you already know they might be dangerous. The milk jug method works, but it has a couple of limitations. First, it's big, so it's inconvenient if you are snorkeling or diving. Secondly, even soft plastic like a milk jug can chip the very thin lips of some cones, like C. striatus, C. canonicus, and C.generalis, as you pop them through the "X". I use one of the little Tupperware-type pitchers with a handle, a big snap-on lid that fits tightly (some of the cheap imitation ones don't), and a smaller, hinged "pour" cap that can be opened for small shells. I also have some plastic jars with hinged caps that are convenient for snorkeling, but if I'm diving I like something with a handle. If you carry one of these smaller containers, the big Conus litteratus, C. leopardus, and C. vexillum, etc., might not fit in the container, so I carry a mesh bag for the big ones. After seeing the proboscides extended through the mesh from a lot of dangerous cones, I quit putting any of these in a mesh bag, and only use the mesh for the monster worm-eaters, none of which are likely to be dangerous.

As for handling them, gloves are probably a good idea, but it's really not a substitute for watching what you are doing. If you start to lift a Conus geographus or C. tulipa off the reef, there is a good chance that it will extend the proboscis as you start lifting, or even if you put a little pressure on the dorsum of the shell. If you dislodge them and then pick them up as they are temporarily stunned, they usually don't act as excited. For the other potentially dangerous species, sliding them in the sand or across the rubble will usually make them retract completely and will minimize the chance that one will take a shot at you.

The best advice I could give is:

1) Wear gloves.
2) Keep the aperture of the shell up so you can see if the animal extends the proboscis as you are trying to put it in the container. Drop it or rub the foot of the animal against the side of the container if it does.
3) Even if you are wearing gloves, don't carry cones around in your hand. Almost any cone will sting you if you carry it in your hand long enough, and your glove may smell or feel "fishy" to your new friend.
4) Don't reach into the container to retrieve your prizes once you have returned to shore. Pour them out gently and handle them only when you can see them. They will be agitated and much more likely to sting after a couple hours in your container.

Cones with large "harpoons" like C. striatus and C.geographus could very likely fire though a leather work glove. I have personally seen C. striatus imbed their teeth several millimeters into aquarium air stones, which indicates that they are fired with enough velocity to penetrate almost any glove. If you try to cut a leather glove with a knife you might not be very successful, but try stabbing one with a keen hypodermic needle...

I know this sounds almost scary, but it's really not very dangerous if you aren't complacent or ignorant. It only takes three seconds to pop the container top open, reach down and grab the nice Conus striatus you see crawling across the sand, slide him a couple of inches in the sand, pick him up, and insert him into your container as you watch the aperture of the shell.

If you do all of this wrong, and break all of the rules, chances are still pretty good that you won't be stung! Still, some degree of caution is certainly warranted if you are handling these guys. Best of luck with your Pacific collecting.
Don Barclay

I've collected a lot of Striatus and Textile, and a few Geographus cones, always picking them up with bare hands at the spire end. As others have said they generally retreat within their shells. Every one I ever collected did, with the exception of one Textile that waved his proboscis around wildly but could not reach to the spire end where I was holding him (maybe I was lucky). Unless you collect at night, when they may be on top of the sand, you will find the above cones by turning over rubble and seeing them mostly buried in the sand (or maybe completely buried and you have to fan the sand to uncover them.) You might try using something like a tongue depressor to dislodge the cone from the sand and turn it over to expose the aperture. That should cause the animal to retreat into its shell and you can gingerly pick it up and put it into whatever container you decide on.

Ed Foster

As others have said, it is a good idea to put collected cones in a plastic container. I always use a string through the container cover attached through the bottom of the container and connect the string to my weight belt by a snap.
I pick up cones from the dorsal side and near the spire. There isn't much probability of getting stung unless you hold them in your hand, but be aware that the proboscis can reach as far as the spire.
There isn't much likelyhood of finding a C. geographus in Hawaii as they don't live here. Conus mamoreus, textile, penaceus, striatus, cattus and obscurus are the main poisonous cones here. While C. obscurus is small, its venom is fairly strong and more people have been stung by them than other species to my knowledge, probably because they don't appear dangerous. I don't know of any deaths from cones in Hawaii, but have heard from several people who were stung by C. obscurus. The main result is some difficulty breathing for some hours. All instances have been due to doing something very foolish like putting the obscurus in their gloves (while wearing them) or in a wool hat on their head. I doubt you will be doing that.

Wes Thorsson
Editor, HSN