Saving the Nautilus

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, researchers on board the boat are busy. They lower into the ocean three large iron traps with raw chicken inside. Video cameras are attached to the traps. The researchers watch and take note of how many nautiluses, attracted to the meat, swim past the traps overnight. In the morning, the team hauls the traps back onto the boat. They measure, tag and photograph captured nautiluses before releasing them. Scientist Peter Ward, of the University of Washington, is leading the study. “We need to know how many nautiluses there are,” he told TFK. “Thousands? Hundreds?”

Why does the number of creatures matter? Information collected around the world by Ward and other scientists will help to show if the nautilus is threatened and if the animal should be listed as an endangered species.

Nautiluses have survived for more than 500 million years. But some scientists fear that the animals may be in danger of disappearing. Humans have been killing the animal for its unique shell. The inside of the shell is pearl colored and forms a perfect spiral. It is used to make decorations and jewelry.

A Call to Action

At a meeting of scientists in France in 2010, 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. from other countries.

Ward thought that number was alarmingly high. So he came up with a plan to study and count nautiluses. He began his work this summer. He is now in Australia. Four more seagoing research trips are expected to take place in the months ahead.

There is much to learn. “We’re really at the tip of the iceberg,” De Angelis says. 

Kids Can Help Too

After reading an article about nautiluses and Ward’s study, Josiah Utsch, 11, decided to take action to protect his favorite sea animal. Josiah and his friend Ridgely Kelly, 10, started a website called “We wanted to educate people,” Josiah says. Money raised by the site goes to support research. 

Ward hopes more kids will pay attention to the plight of the nautilus. “I’m going to try to save this thing,” he says. Getting kids involved, he adds, is “the single best way to do that.”

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