Protecting a Living Fossil: Is it Too Late for the Chambered Nautilus?

The Chambered Nautilus is a sea creature considered a “living fossil” due to its having survived for the last half billion years relatively unchanged.   Akin to other shelled creatures like snails and hermit crabs, the Nautilus has a beautiful shell that is both prized by jewelers and their customers.  This demand for its beautiful shell has resulted in the Nautilus reaching near-endangered levels of population.  Without protection, a living remnant of the earth as it was half a billion years ago will cease to exist.

The Nautilus derives its name from the latin word for “boat” due to the shape of its shell. The “boats” that these creatures live in are full of chambers that the Nautilus fills with varying amounts of gas to create different levels of buoyancy to move itself.  It also swims using jet propulsion.  Because of this gas in its shells it cannot go too deep lest its shell explode, much like a submarine.  It generally lives in coral reefs in dark, deep depths of the ocean waters of the southwestern Pacific.  During the Cambrian period 500 million years ago these creatures grew to gigantic sizes while now they are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. 

The beauty of the Nautilus’ shell has been recognized for centuries.  Displayed in Victorian homes, used as cups and pitchers in Florence by royalty in the 13th century, and now used by jewelers and ornament designers Nautilus shells are in higher demand than ever.  And fishing of them has gone largely unrestricted.  Fishermen catch them by the millions in the South Pacific and generally receive $1 per shell.   Peter D. Ward of the University of Washington calls it a “…horrendous slaughter…”  This slaughter does result in high amounts of income for those committing this atrocity.   Shell earrings can sell for roughly $20, pendants for $25, big shells go for up to $56, and jewelry made from the material from the inner surface of the shell can go as high as $500.  It wasn’t until recently that people started to notice that population numbers were declining and sent scientists to research just how much.   What the scientists found shocked them.  Numbers have been drastically reduced it turns out and if measures aren’t taken the Nautilus will soon cease to exist.  The Nautilus is a slow-reproducer; it takes 15 years or more to reach sexual maturity.  This, combined with the extreme fishing taking place, means action needs to be taken.   Either limits need to be placed on how many Nautilus’ can be fished or the creature needs to be put on the endangered species list and protected.  Either way, something must be done to make sure this living fossil doesn’t simply become a fossil in a museum.

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