Sunday, December 23, 2007

Conus and cone salape’ beads

The Conus family of marine snails is a favorite of mine because of their beauty, their interesting biology and their diversity. I read in the Conus Biodiversity Website ( that there are about 500 extant or existing species around the world making it “the largest genus of marine invertebrates.” Just check out Hardy's Internet Guide to Marine Gastropods: (
if you want to visually check out what I mean. They are commonly known as the cone shells because of they’re typically shaped like a cone.

Cone shells are popular with collectors and are probably only second to the cowries in popularity. They are also highly specialized predators that can be categorized by what they eat: vermivorous (worm-eating), molluscivorous (mollusc-eating) and piscivorous (fish-eating). To eat, most gastropods have a toothed ribbon-like structure in their mouths composed of chitin that is used to cut and chew food. Cone shells however, have poisonous harpoon-like barbs that can stun or kill their prey. In fact, there have been several human fatalities recorded due to the handling and successive stinging from cone shells. Some species are known to have up to 60 barbs at one time! When I talk to kids about how powerful a sting is from a fish- eating cone is, I usually ask, “What’s faster, a snail of a fish?” Kids of course are smart and they usually answer, “Fish!” and then I go on explaining that that is the reason why the toxin from a cone snail needs to be powerful: to catch that fast fish! Check out my friend Bob’s blog for his post on cones and a cool picture of a poison barb:

It is said that it is the piscivores that are the most dangerous. Most have an aperture or opening that is larger in comparison to other members of their family to accommodate their catch. On Saipan, piscivores that I have seen include Conus geographus (Geography cone), C. bullatus (Bubble cone), C. tulipa (Tulip cone), C. striatus (Striated cone), and C. aulicus (Princely cone). Suffice to say, no one should be handling any live cone snails to avoid getting stung. These toxins do have benefits though in that they are being studied for applications in medicine and neuroscience.

Cone shells were also used by the ancient Chamorros for ornaments. One of the most common cones utilized in Micronesia is Conus litteratus (Linnaeus, 1758) or Lettered cone, a large and common cone found in shallow lagoons. Its range is from Indo to the Western Pacific and they grow in between 60 – 186 mms. Artifacts that have been found in Micronesia that are made of the Lettered cone include bracelets, ear ornaments, and coin-shaped beads, or salape’. Here is a picture from the Museum of History and Culture in Garapan, Saipan of Conus salpe’ beads and bracelets alongside some cowrie beads. The bracelet fragments on the right are made from Lettered cone.

The next set of pictures is of a conus artifact found at the beach of Puntan Achugao, Saipan. It is about 49 mm in diameter and still sports 16 visible brown spots, clearly identifying it as a Lettered cone.
It bears a striking resemblance to an illustration of an unfinished Conus ring artifact from the island of Kosrae in the pages of the Catalogue of Prehistoric Micronesian Artifacts Housed in Japan (Intoh) albeit the pictured artifact is only about 25 mm.

Other illustrations of Conus artifacts in the catalogue show that some sported decorative groove lines and some that were just smooth. The second picture bellow are of illustrations of Pohnapean Conus bracelet artifacts.

This is a picture of a big Conus litteratus (Linneaus, 1758) or Lettered cone found dead in the Saipan Lagoon. It is about 95 mm. The shell is solid and heavy with a creamy white color dotted with black dashes. The thin proteinaceous outer layer called the periostracum can be clearly seen on this sample as the yellowish sheen on the shell. This cone is vermivorous, preferring to eat marine worms.

My friend Bob inspired me to layout shell photos like this with the top, bottom, left side, and right side, anterior and posterior views side by side. He does a beautiful job photographing and laying out his shell photos that I was inspired to do the same. Check out his masterful works in

I decided to make coined shaped money beads or salape’ of the ancient Chamorro replica alas or alahas (ornamentations) just to see how they would look alongside the Spondylus beads that I was already making. I have yet to try and cut bracelets out of big cones that I have found since their natural beauty keeps me from altering them in any way. So far, I’ve only worked broken fragments that I have found while beachcombing around Saipan’s beaches. Here are some of my finished alahas.

I can guarantee that no two necklaces are the same in my collection and the varied shell fragments that I use maintain it that way. I found a pretty good-sized fragment of a Conus striatus or Striated cone and decided that there was enough make two cone salape’ alongside classical-shaped Spondylus salape’. I call these two the Dinga’, which means twins in Chamorro. I hope one day a couple will buy this from me and have matching necklaces, or maybe a parent can get them for two of their famagu’on (children) so that they can keep the twins together.

Here are two examples of intact Conus striatus (Linnaeus, 1758) shells that were found after a storm in Obyan Beach, Saipan. The first one is about 85 mm and is pink dark brown striated blotches. It looks faded compared to the second sample that is about 52 mm and has darker brown blotches and finer striations. The Striated cone is a common shallow water dweller that can grow up to 100 mm with an Indo-Pacific range. The lips on the aperture or opening of the two samples are chipped and jagged from being tossed around during the storm but they still retain thir beauty. The Striated cone has a potent toxin since it is piscivorous and has proved fatal to humans who mishandled them.

The next alas I made includes a cone salape’ made from a Calf cone fragment. I really like this piece because the brown lightning patterns really compliment the orange Spondylus salape’ quite well. Here is what an intact Calf cone or Conus vitulinus (Hwass in Bruguiére, 1792) looks like. It is about 50 mm in length but can reach about 80 mm. They live up to a depth of 25m with a range from Indo- to West-Pacific. This cone was found at the beach in American Memorial Park. It is also called Veal cone. The top part of the shell is has a bit of erosion damage.

One contemporary Spondylus haguet (hook) that I showcased on an earlier post had a complimenting Soldier cone salape’ (money bead). I cut the bead out from a Soldier cone fragment. This haguet is now owned by my friend Greg M. for a Christmas/farewell gift since he left earlier this month to live in California.

Here is a small intact Soldier cone or Conus miles (Linneaus, 1758) that is about 35 mm in length. It can grow up to 7.5 cm, has an Indo-Pacific range, and is a shallow to moderately deep-water dweller. The details on this shell are quite striking especially the orange axial streaks on green patches. I am not sure what type of habitat it inhibits since I found this shell dead while beach combing in Obyan Beach, Saipan. The Soldier cone is vermivorous.

I call this piece Hina, a Chamorro word for poison since it comes from a very dangerous cone shell, the Textile cone. I matched it with a small cone shell salape’ from a Gold leaf cone fragment, also reputedly dangerous. This piece really turned out nicely and I was glad I found a big enough fragment to cut for a toggle.

Here is the beautiful but highly dangerous Conus textile or Textile cone (Linneaus, 1758). It is a common shallow reef dweller yet beautifully patterned with triangular marks. It has a moderately high spire and a pointed apex or tip. This shell is about 90mm in length and was found in PauPau Beach, Saipan. It eats other molluscs, hunting other shells at night. This specimen still has its light tan periostracum intact.

I don’t have very good complete sample of a Gold Leaf Cone or Conus auricomus (Hwass in Bruguière, 1792), but here’s a picture of some fragments that I found in Coral Ocean Point, Saipan. They are part of the textile cone group that have the beautiful tented patterns. Check out my friend Bob’s post on the one he found on Guam:
It is also known as the Clavus cone, and can grow up to 69 mm and has an Indo-Pacific range.

I’ll definitely continue to use cone shell fragments in the alahas that I am making because the few that I showcased here turned out so beautifully. I only utilize dead and fragmented shells to help conserve them in the Commonwealth’s waters. Again, cone shells are dangerous to handle alive! Plus, if you are thinking about collecting shells, I urge you to find out as much information as you can before starting. The World Wide Web is a good place to start and please talk to someone at the Division of Fish and Wildlife, Puerto Rico, Saipan about the legality of collecting and applying for a permit. Their number is 670-664-6000/1.

Thank you once again for letting me share and have a Merry Christmas.

The Beachcomber


Bob Abela said...

Composite image are an illustrative technique that take time. I'm so very glad they inspired you and thank you for your kind words. This was a very enjoyable read. Through your research and passion, you successfully blend the world of art with the world of science.

Happy New Year!

Beverly said...

hello! ;) nice cones! ehhe

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