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CRITTER: Meet pupu leholeho‘oni‘oni‘o, the swollen bubble shell

This beautiful one inch long pink and white marine snail is one of the hardest to find Hawaiian shells. I have over 1,000 hours of underwater video of marine life in Hawai‘i and I have only found one of these live shells and that was by accident! I was doing a night snorkel at ‘Anini Beach in Kaua‘i and when I came back to shore I was sitting in one foot of water getting ready to turn off my video lights when I noticed something crawling on the sand next to my foot. I was super excited to see it was a live bubble shell.

One reason pupu leholeho‘oni‘oni‘o is so hard to find is that they live most of their lives under the sand right next to shore in one to two feet deep of water. Their shell is too small to fit their entire body into and the shell is so light and thin you could crush it if you hold it too tight between your fingers. In Hawai‘i where we have five foot surf crashing on the shore on a regular basis it is truly amazing that this critter even exist.

Nature is truly amazing because some animals are adapted to live in extremely harsh environments and the bubble shells are a perfect example. Living under the sand right near shore is a risky business. We all know that our beaches change all the time due to the surf and currents so where does pupu leholeho‘oni‘oni‘o go when the surf is big and crashing right on the shore. Their paper thin shell is so fragile that when they die it falls apart quickly in the surf and that is why shell collectors rarely find one on the beach.

Not only does this shell live in extremely difficult habitat for survival, it also feeds on one species of worm that lives under the sand close to shore. I wonder where the worms go when the surf is big?

There are so many mysteries that surround the swollen bubble shell and just finding a live one was truly exciting! I have a new movie coming out about the life of Hawaiian sea shells and I figured I would never find a live pupu leholeho‘oni‘oni‘o and when I finally got the chance to see one I almost sat on it without even knowing it.

Another mystery about the bubble shell is the Hawaiian name. I am surprised that the Hawaiians in the past ever even found one of these rare creatures and gave it a name but I can’t seem to figure out what the name means. If anyone out there can interpret their name please let me know as I am sure it is very special and may just give us a little more knowledge about this unusual creature.

You can see the swollen bubble shell in action in my movie about Hawaiian sea shells that will be out soon on my YouTube channel at Underwater2web. Aloha from under the surf.


Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei. He is co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to
Source: The Garden Island

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