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"Three cones are remarkable for the height of their spires, for their striking markings, and for their scarcity: Conus gloriamaris, C. milneedwardsi, and C. excelsus. The first of these is the best known and is now much the easiest to acquire; the second is currently regarded by many as the most desirable of all the cones; but the third—scarcest of the three and no less beautiful—is not widely known to collectors....A freshly-collected specimen must be a lovely object."
Dance, Rare Shells (p.113)
With more than 500 species, Conus is the largest genus of marine invertebrates. Conus gloriamaris is one of three cones characterized by their high stepped spires (see previous page).
Conus excelsus, Sowerby III 1908 ("Illustrious Cone") was unique when it first was described. It "defies comparison with any hitherto known species. The most prominent feature is the extraordinary height of its acutely conical spire, which is quite symmetrical....In colour it is rather light fulvous yellow, with white patches of various sizes and shapes, outlined with reddish brown." Another specimen was not recorded until 1945 and only one other specimen was thought to have been found when Dance published his book in 1969. The holotype, which is in the British Museum, comes from New Caledonia, off the northeastern coast of Australia. It now is known to range as far north as Japan. Size varies between 60 and 102 mm; the one illustrated is 72 mm.
Conus milneedwardsi, Jousseaume 1894 ("Glory of India") was named after Alphonse Milne-Edwards (1835-1900, Director of the Paris Museum of Natural History) and described by Melvill and Standen in 1899 as C. clystospira ("illustrious spire," a more descriptive name from the Greek). The authors enthused that it "undeniably constitutes one of the most important discoveries of the kind during the nineteenth century. It will rank amongst the most select of a genus unusually distinguished in both form, texture, and coloration....The spire, however, is the most distinguishing characteristic." The shell was one of three dead specimens found that year embedded in the pitch coating of an undersea telegraph cable, the largest one knocked off as the cable was being hauled up to the ship. Later, it was realized that C. milneedwardsi had been described by Jousseaume five years before; indeed, Mme Bandeville had purchased one for her collection in 1749, the sales catalog describing it as une coquille d'une extrême rareté. Known then as Drap d'Or Pyramidal ("Cloth of Gold Pyramid"), it was illustrated in the third edition of d'Argenville's Conchyliologie (1780, Pl. XVIII, fig. C1). When Dance wrote in 1966, fewer than a dozen examples of C. milneedwardsi had been discovered. The shell ranges along the east coast of Africa from Natal to the Red Sea and varies in size between 60 and 174 mm; the one illustrated is 110 mm. The holotype is in the National d'Histoire Naturelle Muséum (Paris). There are three subspecies: C. milneedwardsi clytospira, which is found in the waters of western India from Pakistan to Sri Lanka; C. milneedwardsi lemuriensis, around the islands of Réunion and Mauritius off the eastern coast of Madagascar; and C. milneedwardsi kawamurai in the Ryukyu Islands, the southernmost island group of Japan. The two pink bands around the whorls are most prominent in C. m. clytospira and weaker in C. m. kawamurai, which is the smallest form and one for which no live specimen has ever been collected.
For two hundred years, Conus gloriamaris, Chemnitz 1777 ("Glory of the Sea") was the most rare and desirable of all shells. The first iconography to illustrate previously unfigured shells was Neues Systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet, the initial volume of which was published by Martini in 1769. When he died, this monumental work, which extended over a quarter of a century to eleven volumes, was continued by Chemnitz, who produced the last eight. The intention was to portray every shell known and any newly discovered species, an impossible task then as now. The nomenclature that Linnaeus had introduced more than a decade earlier was not used, however; and many of the illustrations were appropriated by others who did attach binominal names to them, claiming authorship of the species for themselves. C. gloriamaris is the only species to carry the name of Chemnitz as author, and this was because he had published a separate description that year. The shell ranges from Samoa and Fiji to the Philippines and varies in size from 75 to 162 mm; the one illustrated is 116 mm. The holotype is in the Zoological Museum at the University of Copenhagen.
Given the elegance of their tall spires, their rarity and beauty, it is not surprising that C. gloriamaris (Glory of the Sea) and C. milneedwardsi (Glory of India) also are two of the so-called Glory cones.
References: Shell Collecting: An Illustrated History (1966) by S. Peter Dance; Rare Shells (1969) by S. Peter Dance; Manual of the Living Conidae (1995) by Dieter Röckel, Werner Korn, and Alan J. Kohn; "Description of Conus (Cylinder) clytospira sp. n., from the Arabian Sea" (1899) by James Cosmo Melvill and Robert Standen, The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, (7)4, 461-493; "Description of a New Species of the Genus Conus" (1908) by G. B. Sowerby [III], The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, (8)6, 465-495; "Von einer ausserordentlich seltenen Art Walzenförmiger Tuten oder Kegelschnekken, welche den Namen Gloria maris führet (1777) by J. H. Chemnitz, Beschäftigungen der Berlinischen Gesellschaft Naturforschender Freunde, 3, 321-331; "Notes on J. H. Chemnitz," (1994) by Peter Reichert, Hawaiian Shell News, 42(11), 1, 4-5; Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville: Shells (2009) by Veronica Carpita, Rainer Willmann, and Sophia Willmann; The Conus Biodiversity Website (Alan J. Kohn, Principal Investigator), which updates and corrects the description of the Indo-Pacific cones from the Manual of the Living Conidae, now out of print.
See also Precious Wentletrap.
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