If you’ve ever had your hair braided at the beach, on a sunny vacation somewhere, during the nineties, you’ll likely recognize these snail shells. They’re commonly used as decorations, not just in hair but also for jewelry, home décor, and more.
Several cowrie species are now popular in the aquarium industry, and in some places around the world they even have spiritual significance. For some cultures, they were worn as a sign of power within tribes.
What is a Cowrie?
When talking about cowrie, also sometimes known as cowry, it can refer to two things:
- Cowrie snail
- Cowrie snail shell
Cowrie is the name of a family of snails, with several species and subspecies within it. They all live in marine (saltwater), in different parts of the world, and have different patterns of behavior. They belong to a family known as Cypaeidae and are considered collector’s items because of their vast array of shapes, sizes, and colors.
Common species found in the aquarium/pet industry are the money cowrie (Monetaria moneta) and tiger cowrie (Cypraea tigris).
How Big Does a Cowrie Snail Get?
Different species will grow to different lengths, and the length seems to have a direct correlation with lifespan. Here are a few different species and their maximum sizes:
- Atlantic yellow – 1.2-inches (3 cm)
- European/spotted – 0.4-inch (1 cm)
- Money – 1.2-inches (3 cm)
- Mouse – 2.6-inches (6.5 cm)
- Panther – 2.6-inches (6.5 cm)
- Rat/droppings – 3.8-inches (9.7 cm)
- Reticulated/blotched – 2.1-inches (5.4 cm)
Where Do Cowries Come From?
Cowries can be found all around the world, both naturally and introduced. The European cowrie can be found – as the name might suggest – in Europe. Also known as spotted cowrie, it’s common along coastal Scotland and the UK, plus much of the Mediterranean.
The Chinese cowrie, also known as Ovatipsa chinensis, is found, just as the name suggests, along the coastal waters of China along with other Indian Ocean locations, some sports in the Central Pacific Ocean, and slightly further afield.
Granulated cowries (Nucleolaria granulata) can only be found in the French-Polynesian Marquesas volcanic islands and Hawaii.
Wrinkled cowries (Nucleolaria nucleus) are quite far-reaching, found in the Pacific Ocean (west central), the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and more.
The drop-covered cowrie (Perisserosa guttata) can be found off Queensland, the Philippines, Japan, and the South China Sea.
Almost every part of the world has its own unique species of cowry snail. For the most part, they prefer shallow and warm waters, and are usually found around subtropical and tropical areas.
What Do Cowrie Snails Eat?
These snails are mostly herbivorous, but also part-omnivorous, eating both plant matter and animal matter. In both captivity and in the wild, cowries are known to eat a variety of foods, including:
- Other snails
- Other marine vegetation
- Dead tankmates
- Small crustaceans
- Dead coral
- Coral polyps
- Sea sponges
In Hawaii, these gastropods keep populations of non-native and invasive sea sponges low. Around the world, they’re an important member of local ecosystems, acting as both predator and prey.
Cowrie Snail Lifespan
It is generally understood that larger cowrie species live for a lot longer than their smaller counterparts. Tiger cowries, known scientifically as Cypraea tigris, can live for up to 10 years. The money cowrie (Monetaria moneta) is smaller and has a lifespan of around 3 years.
Cowrie Snail Care Guide
There are a few things you should know before you consider adding these snails to your home aquarium.
Most cowries are nocturnal, including the tiger cowrie, and they move around quite a bit at night. You will need to provide enough space and water for this new addition to your tank, and they’ll also need plenty of dark hiding spots. Tank size will be specific to the size of the species you have, and the same goes for hiding spots.
Your aquarium will need a pH level of 8.1-8.4.
These snails are also tropical or subtropical, so you’ll need to maintain a higher temperature in the tank – between 71 and 82°F (22-28°C).
They will keep algae levels down by eating it, which is why many people choose to introduce them into tanks. Some enthusiasts recommend having either a light or some sunlight to encourage algae growth, but this is only for tanks that are relatively algae-free.
Are Cowrie Snails Reef Safe?
The jury is still out on whether cowries are reef safe. If you look at the list of foods that different species of this gastropod eats, sponges and coral are on the list. Your new additions to the tank could feed on the reef.
Larger specimens and species of cowrie snail are heavier and clumsier than their smaller counterparts. This can cause damage to reef and ornamental items in the aquarium.
It’s best to test your new gastropod with different types of sponges, coral, tunicates, and other reef items. If your snail nibbles at them, you’ll know to take reefs out or find a new home for your pet.
It’s not recommended to home cowries with highly prized or expensive coral… just in case.
Breeding Cowries: Everything You Need to Know
It is notoriously difficult to breed cowrie snails in captivity, and some species have never been successfully bred at all. The juveniles go through a planktonic stage, known as a veliger stage, which they don’t seem to be able to get past in aquarium conditions. This stage can be quite long, and the right food sources aren’t present in the tank for the juveniles to feed on.
You’ll likely find eggs from time to time if you have a breeding male and female, but those eggs will seem to disappear overnight, according to many aquarium enthusiasts.
Are Cowries Hermaphrodites?
No, all cowries have two distinct sexes – male and female. They cannot switch from one to the other, and they can’t self-fertilize. Without at least one male and one female, they won’t breed.
Are Cowrie Snails Poisonous?
No, cowrie snails are not poisonous. They can’t harm you. Some of them are omnivores, but they have no interest in human flesh.
Are Cowrie Snails Rare?
Many of these marine gastropods are common in the area they are found, but there are a few rare species. One example of this is the golden cowrie, scientifically known as Callistocypraea aurantium. Only found in central to south/west areas of the Pacific Ocean, they’re hard to come by, so shells are highly collectable and fetch a high price.