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Cowry, also sometimes spelled cowrie, plural cowries, is the common name for a group of small to large marine gastropods in the family Cypraeidae. The word cowry is also often used to refer to the shell of these snails.

Many people find the very rounded, shiny, porcelain-like shells of cowries pleasing to look at and to handle. Shells of certain species have historically been used as currency in several parts of the world, as well as being used, in the past and present, very extensively in jewellery, and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.

Some species in the family Ovulidae are also often referred to as cowries. In the British Islesmarker the local Trivia species (family Triviidae, species Trivia monacha and Trivia arctica) are sometimes called cowries. The Ovulidae and the Triviidae are somewhat closely related to the Cypraeidae.


Cypraeidae are found in tropical and subtropical oceans and seas worldwide.

Shell description

The shells of cowries are almost always smooth and shiny and more or less egg-shaped, with a long, narrow, slit-like opening (aperture).

All cowry shells have a porcelain-like shine except Hawaiimarker's granulated cowry, Cypraea granulata. Many have colorful patterns. Lengths range from 5 mm for some species up to 15 cm for the tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris.

Human use

The shells of cowries (especially Cypraea moneta) were used for centuries as a currency in Africa. Huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced into Africa by western nations during the period of slave trade. The Ghanaianmarker unit of currency known as the Ghanaian cedi was named after cowry shells. Starting over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency. They were also used as means of exchange in Indiamarker.

The Classical Chinese character for money(貝) originated as a stylized drawing of a cowrie shell. Words and characters concerning money, property or wealth usually has this as a radical.

The Ojibway aboriginal people in North America used cowry shells which they called sacred Megis Shells or whiteshells in Midewiwin ceremonies, and the Whiteshell Provincial Parkmarker in Manitobamarker, Canadamarker is named after this type of shell. There is some debate about how the Ojibway traded for or found these shells, so far inland and so far north, very distant from the natural habitat. Oral stories and birch bark scrolls seem to indicate that the shells were found in the ground, or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. Finding the cowry shells so far inland could indicate the previous use of them by an earlier tribe or group in the area, who may have obtained them through an extensive trade network in the ancient past. Petroforms in the Whiteshell Provincial Parkmarker may be as old as 8,000 years.

Cowry shells are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms. They are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth. The symbolism of the cowry shell is associated with the appearance of its underside: the lengthwise opening makes the shell look like a vulva or an eye.

Cowry shells are sometimes used in a way similar to dice, e.g., in board games like Pachisi, or in divination (cf. Ifá and the annual customs of Dahomey). A number of shells (6 or 7 in Pachisi) are thrown, with those landing aperture upwards indicating the actual number rolled.

On the Fijimarker Islands, a shell of the golden cowry or bulikula, Cypraea aurantium, was drilled at the ends and worn on a string around the neck by chieftans as a badge of rank.

Large cowry shells such as that of Cypraea tigris have been used in Europe in the recent past as a frame over which sock heels were stretched for darning. The cowry's smooth surface allows the needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily.



Image:Cypraea caputserpentis.ogg|Live specimens of Cypraea helvola (seen first) & Cypraea caputserpentis (last)Image:CYPisabella.ogg|Live Cypraea isabella (next to a Cypraea sulcidentata)

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