Facts About Conchs and Their Shells

Sea Snails Produce Large and Beautiful Shells

A conch shell in the sand
Simon Marlow / EyeEm / Getty Images

Conchs are a type of sea snail and are also a popular seafood in some areas. They are known for their elaborate and colorful shells.

The term 'conch' (pronounced "konk") is used to describe over 60 species of sea snails which have a medium- to large-sized shell. In many species, the shell is elaborate and colorful. Probably the most well-known species is the queen conch, which is the image that might come to mind of a sea shell. This shell is often sold as a souvenir, and it's said you can hear the sea if you put a conch shell to your ear.

Classification of the Conch

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Mollusca
  • Class: Gastropoda

True conchs are gastropods in the Family Strombidae, which includes about 60 species (Source: Worldwide Conchology). Shells of these animals are strong and have a wide 'lip'. The general term 'conch' is also applied to other taxonomic families, such as the Melongenidae, which include the melon and crown conchs.

The Conch Shell

The shell of the conch grows in thickness throughout its life. In the queen conch, the shell reaches its adult size after three years. Then the flared lip starts to form that gives it its prized shape. In the queen conch, the shell is from about six inches to 12 inches in length. It has between nine to 11 whorls on the protruding spire. Very rarely the conch may produce a pearl.

Habitat and Distribution of Conchs

Conchs live in tropical waters, including the Caribbean, West Indies, and Mediterranean. They live in relatively shallow waters, including reef and seagrass habitats.

The queen conch is found throughout the Caribbean and is usually found in water that is from one to 70 feet deep, although they can be found deeper. They wander for miles rather than staying put in one place. Rather than swimming, they used their foot to lift and throw their body forward and they are good climbers. They eat sea grass and algae as well as dead material. They are herbivores rather than carnivores. In turn, they are eaten by loggerhead sea turtles, the horse conch, and by humans. They can grow to be over a foot long and can live for as long as 40 years.

Conservation and Human Uses of Conchs

Conchs are edible, and in many cases, have been overharvested for meat and also for souvenir shells. Queen conchs are a species threatened by overharvesting, and fishing for conchs is no longer allowed in Florida waters.

Queen conchs are still harvested for their meat in other areas of the Caribbean, where they are not yet endangered. Much of this meat is sold to the United States. International trade is regulated under the  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreement. Their shells are sold as souvenirs and are used in making shell jewelry. Live conchs are also sold for use in aquariums.