Photo: Close-up of a cowrie

Once used as status symbols among Fiji rulers, the golden cowrie is prized by shell collectors.

Photograph by Victor R. Boswell, Jr


Map: Golden cowrie range

Golden Cowrie Range

Fast Facts

4 in (10 cm)
Did you know?
Ancient Romans used the word porculi, or little pigs, to refer to cowries. The word eventually transformed to porcelain to describe fine pottery.
Size relative to a tea cup:
Illustration: Golden cowrie compared with tea cup

The golden cowrie is a marine snail named for its brilliant orange shell. It is among the largest of the world's 250 known cowrie species, reaching four inches (ten centimeters) in length.

Rare and reclusive, these mollusks spend most of their lives hiding under rocks in the cracks and crevices of reefs in the South Pacific. They come out only at night to feed on sponges and algae.

Golden cowries are egg-shaped with a flat base and a narrow opening. Like other cowries, their shells are smooth and highly polished. They protect their glossy finish by wrapping their brightly colored mantle lobes nearly completely around their shells when they move.

Golden cowrie shells have been used as currency and religious symbols throughout the South Pacific. On the island of Fiji, they were worn on a necklace by a chieftain as a symbol of status and rank.

Golden cowrie shells are among the hardest shells to find and are prized by collectors. Unfortunately, habitat loss and over-harvesting are hurting the wild population numbers.

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