The chambered nautilus has been called a living fossil, its ancestors dating back 500 million years ago to the late Cambrian period. Its logarithmic spiral of a shell has long fascinated humans: In the Renaissance, the Medici made vessels of the lustrous shells and, today, people turn them into jewelry and other adornments. You need simply click over to eBay to see various sizes of nautilus for sale, and made into all manner of novelties, from earrings to lamps.
The nautilus, which is cousins with the squid and octopus, lives as far as 2,000 feet down in the warm waters of the southwestern Pacific, on the slopes of coral reefs. Fishermen from poor South Pacific countries hunt it using baited traps on long lines, earning $1 per shell. Catching the cephalopod is unregulated and, due to the depths it lives at, scientists have found it hard to study to keep track of its population.
From 2005 to 2008, 579,000 specimens were imported into the US, according to the Patricia S. De Angelis of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Peter D. Ward, a biologist from the University of Washington, speaks of nothing less than a “horrendous slaughter” and of the nautilus simply being “wiped out.” In some areas, the nautilus is “threatened with extinction,” says Neil H. Landman, a biologist and paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History and the co-editor of Nautilus: The Biology and Paleobiology of a Living Fossil, a compendium of scientific reports. This past summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service funded Dr. Ward and others to conduct a global census off the Philippine island of Bohol:
… in August, he said the team was working with local fishermen to set 40 traps a day but was catching two creatures at most — a tenth to a hundredth the rate of a decade ago. “A horror show,” he called it, adding that he suspected that one particular kind of nautilus “is already extinct in the Philippines” or nearly so.
“A very old species is being killed off quickly out here,” he wrote [in an email].
The captive nautiluses were X-rayed and returned to the sea.
The team plans to go to Australia in December to expand the census to its Great Barrier Reef. The hope is that data from six sites will allow the scientists to estimate the world’s remaining nautilus population, and what might constitute a sustainable catch.
As it takes 15 years for the nautilus to reach sexual maturity, the growing demand for the creature puts its existence in danger. Marine biologists have begun to push for the nautilus to be protected under United Nations regulations, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). The American black bear, the African gray parrot, the green iguana and thousands of other creatures are all protected under these rules, which allow for commercial trade provided that it is both legal and sustainable. Scientists are also concerned about the effects of deep sea fishing on the nautilus.
Once upon a millennium — several — ago, there were thousands of species of nautilus, some giant as the monsters of mythology. Only a few now remain, but even those could disappear unless we stop the unregulated hunting of the nautilus: Has it survived for so many millions of years only to face disappearing completely due to our desire for trinkets made from its shell?
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Photo by Daniel P Davis