Frequent Asked Questions

Q: In what depth of the water do cone shells live ?

A: Many live in intertidal regions and can be collected at low tide simply by walking on the reef when it is exposed at low tide and just turning over rocks and coral and looking underneath. Others live to depths of up to 30 metres or more.

Q: What temperature of water do they live in, and what climate ?

A: Most live in the IndoPacific region in temperate or tropical waters (22o-29 o C). But others (mostly smaller) live along the southern Australian coast where the water temperature is only 5 o -12 o C.

Q: Cone shells are molluscs. But what exactly is a mollusk ?

A: Most of us know one when we see one, but what are the characters that we use to delineate the phylum? Charlie Sturm Jr recalled seeing a website that had some useful information and finally found it again and posted the URL on CONCH-L mailing list. For those of you who would like to see "What constitutes the Mollusks?", click here

Q: What is the gestation period for the cone snail ?

A: Not known with certainty. The life-cycle of marine shells under natural conditions is extremely difficult to determine, especially gastropods. Egg capsules are deposited from which the young emerge as planktonic veligers or crawling juveniles. Alan Kohn in his book "Manual of the Living Conidae" has a nice drawing in text-fig. 39 on p. 38 of "Life Cycle of Conus".

Q: What about the number of births ?

A: I have counted 500-700 eggs in each egg capsule deposited under the rocks in our tank by a Conus textile. Very few survive to go on to hatch in the wild and even fewer survive to adulthood. To my knowledge no one has succeeded in breeding them in captivity as they require a diet of special plankton.

Q: What are their natural predators ? Are they endangered and if so why ?

A: They are predated upon by other marine snails (C.textile is canabalistic if the food source is scarce or if overcrowded in captivity). ie. They are not immune to their own toxins. Crabs and some coral fish also predate upon them.

Q: Do they have any symbiotic relationships?

A: Not known. They are usually found in small colonies or alone.

Q: What is the coloration and patterns of cone shells ?

A: As varied as the 600+ varieties. Most are brown or black patterns on a lighter coloured shell. Take a look at some of the images on my homepage. eg. On the "What's New" and "What's New in 1996" pages. Also visit Guido Poppe's and Yoshihiro Goto's image bank of cones.

Q: What other plants and animals share their ecosystem ?

A: They prefer coral or intertidal regions. Sometimes in the mangroves, sometimes in sandy patches, others climb up on rocks. Take a look at the table in Cone shells by habitat and food preference.

Q: What is the most expensive cone shell ?

A: The most valuable shell ever was a cone, the 'Glory of the Sea'. In 1838 a collector found three Conus gloriamaris in the Philippines but in the next hundred years only five more were found. In 1960 one sold for $2000, an amount that would then have bought a new car. During the '60s and '70s, however, more started turning up and a specimen is now worth only about $200. See this article about a find of C.gloriamaris in Rabaul, PNG in 1963 by Mrs Anne Appleton as related by M.R. Hayes in Hawaiian Shell News, New Series No. 62 -- February, 1965 -- VOL. XIII No. 4.

Q: How do cone shells capture their prey ?

A: Cone shells have converted the rasping radular teeth of other gastropods into deadly darts capable of stopping a fish in its tracks - a skill you need if you are a slow shell with a taste for fast-moving flesh. Loaded with venom which is, in some cases, quite capable of killing a human, the darts are shot from a long distensible nose called a proboscis. Different species feed on worms (vermivorous cones), fish (piscivorous cones) and other molluscs (molluscivorous cones).

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!"

RESPONSES : A number of responses were received - see the list here.

Q: Where have cone shells been found in Oahu ?

A: The best source of information would be to ask members of the Hawaiian Shell Club. They have a newsletter on the Web (the Hawaiian Shell News), and this article by Ellis Cross from Hawaiian Shell News, New Series No. 62 -- February, 1965 -- VOL. XIII No. 4, lists collection sites (with a map) for the following species of Conus : Conus rattus; Conus bandanus ; Conus catus ; Conus chaldaeus ; Conus ebraeus ; Conus flavidus ;. Conus imperialis ; Conus leopardus ; Conus lividus ; Conus miliaris ;. Conus nussatella ; Conus pennaceus ; Conus pertusus ; Conus retifer ; Conus sponsalis ; Conus striatus and Conus textile.

Q: How can I tell if a cone shell that I buy has a filed lip or not ?

A: A filed lip can range from a real hatchet job that you can spot from 6 feet away, to a work of art that is difficult to detect, even with a good microscope. First of all, the more you know about what the species is supposed to look like, the easier it is to spot an altered specimen. For example, some shells normally have a very straight lip (like Conus kintoki), while others have a gently curved lip (Conus amadis)... If you get a Conus kintoki with a curved lip, it has probably been altered. Almost all shells that have a lip will show fine parallel growth lines over the surface of the shell, where successive layers of shell have been added to the lip as the shell grows. "Parallel" is the key word here. The growth striae will be parallel to one another, and they should also be parallel to the lip. On a straight-lipped shell, the striae are straight, and on a curved-lip shell, they are curved. If the edge of the lip angles away from the growth lines, or cuts across them, it is most likely filed. Many shells have a colored, or at least darkened, border along the inside edge of the lip. If the colored band is narrower in some places than others, the narrow parts are likely to have been filed. As I said, there are different degrees of "filing" (which incidentally may be done with an actual file, but is more often done with sandpaper or a grinding wheel of some kind). "Commercial grade" cone shells, typically found in bulk bins in tourist shops, are almost always filed, and obviously so. They just run the lip edge over a grinding wheel until any obvious chips are smoothed off, and that's it. The resulting lip edge is "flat" or "squared off" rather than the normal sharp edge that a cone normally has. The next level of alteration is to grind off chips as above, but then reshape or resharpen the lip edge so it isn't obviously flattened. This is a bit harder to detect, but is still pretty obvious to an experienced collector. To someone who really knows cone shells, a resharpened lip just doesn't feel right. It doesn't have the right degree of "sharpness", and often doesn't parallel the growth lines. Also, with a good magnifier (which is a must for detecting filed lips), you can see the scratches left by the file or sandpaper. The third level of lip doctoring will not be seen on an inexpensive shell - it is just too much trouble for the monetary return. But if you are buying a Conus excelsus, beware! Some suppliers are very adept at grinding away chips, reshaping the lip precisely, making sure the new lip edge parallels the growth lines, and then polishing away the fine scratches left by file or sandpaper. Such a shell can be difficult to detect, just as some rare cowries with repainted patterns can be. If in doubt, show the shell to an experienced collector, preferably one specializing in the particular family.
Source: Paul Monfils on CONCH-L@LISTSERV.UGA.EDU Sunday, 31 December 2000 14:28

Q: Has cone shell venom ever killed anyone ?

A: Yes. There are about 30 recorded human deaths from cone shell envenomation. So take care ! It is not easy to tell the species of cone shell unless you are an experienced collector, conchologist or malacologist. The most dangerous are the piscivorous species, Conus geographus, Conus striatus and other fish-hunting cones, but species such as Conus textile, a mollusc-hunting cone, have been reported to cause harm. So best to be cautious of all cone snails.

Q: Have deadly cone shell venoms ever been used to plot an assassination ?

A: Surprisingly, novelists have been slow to engage the deadly cone snail in their plots. However, in 1998, a prominent Thai politician, Pongpol Adireksarn (nom de plume Paul Adirex), wrote a novel called The King Kong Effect [ISBN 9748962032, 378] in which Conus geographus venom was used to assassinate an American president, ("President Carver" NOT Carter).
In the story, drug smugglers plot to kill the US President in Phuket. The action takes place on Butang and other Andaman Islands such as the Similans and the Surins. Click here for Information and Maps.

In a separate, more recent novel,

Sandra Rodriguez Barron has included a quest for 'Conus furiosus' in the plot of "The Heiress of Water" HarperCollins Publishers, New York. 2006. ISBN13: 9780061142819; ISBN: 0061142816; Imprint: Rayo ; On Sale: 9/5/2006; Format: Trade PB; Trimsize: 5 5/16 x 8; Pages: 320; $13.95; Ages: 12 and Up.
This novel, set in a fictional place called 'Negrarena' (loosely based on a place called Playa El Cuco on the eastern shore of El Salvador) makes for excellent reading. It deals with the use of a synthetic cone toxin, SDX-71 based on a natural conotoxin from 'Conus exelmaris', which unfortunately and unlike the toxin from 'Conus furiosus', produces a variety of adverse effects that can linger on indefinitely including "tunnel vision, hallucinations, delerium, paranoia, suicide, and self-mutilation". In the novel, the toxin is administered by injection intrathecally into the spinal fluid in an attempt to restore consciousness to a subject in long-term coma - and with some success. But the claimed 'successes' of this treatment have to be measured against the potentially disasterous long-term consequences. A thoughtful, well researched and engaging novel. I recommend it to you.

Q: Were the Poisonous Orange Snails in the Magical Menagerie of Harry Potter, cone snails ?

A: This question is addressed in "The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works" (ISBN 0-670-03153-4) pp. 81-83, by Roger Highfield (a reporter for the Telegraph) . It was published by the Penguin Group in late 2002. I contributed some information to Roger about the possible origin of the "Poisonous Orange Snails" in the Magical Menagerie - but you will have to read for yourself to discover which species of Conus they were likely to be and whether they were they something to be welcomed or feared by the pupils of Hogwarts ? I can recommend this book as a good read.

In addition, this report from Roger Highfield has featured the recent preclinical work on the conotoxins from the cone shells Conus regius and Conus victoriae. A powerful analgesic, conotoxin Vc1.1 (ACV1), from Conus victoriae is presently being tested in Phase II clinical trials on humans with painful sciatica. In this report "Snails venom signals a pain free future" in his regular science column in the Daily Telegraph, London, Roger Highfield describes how "A powerful toxin gives new hope to the millions who suffer from nerve pain".

Q: Have cone shell venoms ever been employed for bioterrorism ?

A: It is reported in an article by Gary Stix in Scientific American. (April 2005), 70-75, that "before President Boris Yeltsin ordered the shutting down of Russia's bioweapons program in 1992, investigators there were trying to insert the gene for a lethal C.geographus peptide into the genome of the smallpox virus, which would have delivered a devastating double punch to victims." Fortunately, they were not successful.

Ask questions or make comments by sending an email to me (Bruce Livett PhD) at Bio21 Molecular Science & Biotechnology Institute, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia). [Sorry, but to combat SPAM email spiders, you are going to have to look up my email address using your web browser]

Do you have any comments or/and questions ? Please send to Dr. Bruce Livett, Bio21 Molecular Science & Biotechnology Institute, 30 Flemington Rd., Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.

Copyright 1998 Dynamix@WORK! All rights reserved. Last updated on January 1, 2006.