Objects of Wonder: Cowries

James Di Loreto / Smithsonian Institution
March 9, 2017
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Cabinets and drawers full of cowrie shells
James Di Loreto / Smithsonian Institution

Cowries are the best known of all molluscan groups. Their glossy shells and incredible diversity of colors and patterns have attracted the attention of collectors for thousands of years. They have been used as symbolic ornaments or adornments, found associated with Egyptian burials, used as fertility charms or healing aids and traded as currency. Cowries are also prominent members of coral reef communities and are used as a model group to better understand the history of these complex, highly diverse natural ecosystems. The National Museum of Natural History houses over 50,000 individuals that continue to amaze both scientists and non-scientists alike. 

Photo: James Di Loreto / Smithsonian Institution