Cone Shells

Cone shells (Conus sp.) are numerous, comprising about 70 species. About seven of these species are dangerous to man. Beautifully patterned and colorful, the cones are carnivorous gastropods that inhabit shallow intertidal waters of coral reefs and come out at night to do their hunting. They eat worms, fish, other gastropods and octopuses, immobilizing their prey with a poisoned “harpoon”. Firmly held in the end of the proboscis, a replaceable barbed tooth (1 cm) is jammed into their prey while venom is squeezed through the tooth cavity. Each barb is used only once and is replaced with the next in a series of teeth held in reserve. The cone has an acute sense of smell and can extend their proboscis to envelope objects about their own size.

The species that eats fish is the most potentially lethal to man-and one must assume that any that you see could be this one and shouldn’t be in your hand. Since all are covered in a greenish moss and are difficult to identify it’s best to leave them all alone. It is not safe to hold it by the thick end, as they can reach either end from the cleft in their shell. It’s best to pick them up with tongs and definitely best not to put them in your pocket.

The sting is painful and can lead to progressive incoordination and weakness, blurred vision, trouble swallowing, and eventually respiratory paralysis.


Ernest S. Campbell, M.D., FACS

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