Counting Shells

The chambered nautilus is one of Earth’s oldest animals. Now, scientists say it may be in danger.

January 20, 2012

A boat rocks gently in the warm, clear water off the coast of Lizard Island, in Australia. At night, the scientists on board lower three large iron traps into the ocean. In the morning, the team pulls the traps back onto the boat to measure, tag and photograph the chambered nautiluses caught inside before setting them free.

Scientist Peter Ward is leading a study of the sea creatures. “We need to know how many nautiluses there are,” he told TFK. “Thousands? Hundreds?”

Why do the numbers matter? Nautiluses have lived for more than 500 million years. But some scientists fear that the animals may be in danger of disappearing. Humans have been killing the nautilus for its shell. They use it to make decorations and jewelry. Information collected by scientists will help to show if the nautilus should be listed as an endangered species.

A Call to Action

In 2010, scientists met to talk about the nautilus. Patricia De Angelis, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reported that between 2005 and 2008, 579,000 nautilus-shell products were imported to the U.S.

Ward is alarmed at that number. He wants to know if the nautilus is in danger of dying out. He came up with a plan to count and study the creatures. He began his work this summer, and is planning more research trips. He was on one last week. “I’m going to try to save this thing,” Ward says.

You, too, can help the nautilus (see “On a Mission”).

On a Mission

After reading a newspaper article this summer about the chambered nautilus, Josiah Utsch, 11, wanted to help protect the animal. Was there a group he could give money to? Josiah couldn’t find one. So he and his friend Ridgely Kelly, 10, decided to create a website. It is called Together, the Maine fifth graders hope to raise $15,000 to support scientific research. T-shirts and greeting cards designed by Ridgely are for sale at the site. Visitors can also learn about the nautilus. “We wanted to educate people,” Josiah says.

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