Few species have been around for as long as Nautilus pompilius, a marine creature also known as the chambered nautilus. Beginning in the early Paleozoic era, some 500 million years ago, the Nautilus pompilius started emerging in the seas of ancient Earth.
Fast forward, and they are still jet-propelling their way around the oceans, but their populations have been decreasing due to warming sea waters and commercial fishing. Peter Ward, paleontologist and UW professor, has been studying the nautilus and is concerned about this decline.
Ward is trying to put the nautilus on the endangered species list and has been conducting studies and speaking with journalists about the findings for a few years.
The readers of one New York Times article on the topic were two 11-year-old boys, Josiah Utsch and Ridgely Kelly. They believed in Ward’s cause and began raising awareness about the nautilus and also accepting donations to help fund Ward’s research. To date, they’ve raised almost $9,000 — which Ward said will go toward a camera and light system they will need for an upcoming expedition to Fiji.
The camera rig will sit on the sea floor near bait and attract nautiluses and other sea life to be filmed in the wild. The boys will get to see this kind of research firsthand when they go to Fiji next winter with Ward as part of his scientific expedition team, an educational chance to see the research they helped fund and learn more about the creature they are trying to save.
Utsch and Kelly have inspired other children and adults to join the cause as well, after an article about their nonprofit work was highlighted in Time for Kids magazine. From Georgia to New York, from 9-year-olds to elementary-school classrooms, Utsch’s and Kelly’s cause has motivated groups of people to spread the word. Even putting flyers up around the schools and classrooms can make a difference in awareness.
“It’s not only about raising money for the expedition,” Utsch said. “It’s also about educating people about it. The next generation’s gonna be able to help the environment. Or it could destroy it.”
The cause of decreased nautilus populations is two-fold. One side of the controversy is that the waters in which the nautilus lives are warming, making its habitat shrink.
The other side of the controversy is the commercial fishing of these animals for fashion. According to the New York Times article that inspired the boys to action, there were 579,000 nautilus shells imported into the United States between 2005 and 2008.
Anything from necklaces to lamps are made of natural and pearlized nautilus shells. A large polished shell on a nice antique-looking stand can sell retail for around $150.
Human and ecological impacts on animals can be a rallying cry for action — like the polar bears, pandas, and elephants that, through their wide appeal, have helped animal-rights groups achieve successful endangered-species protections. The nautilus, however, may be more difficult to persuade people to save.
“It’s not, like, cute and cuddly,” Utsch said. “We’re trying to stop the international trade of nautilus.”
Slowly growing to maturity and having a long reproductive incubation period means that the species can’t recoup the numbers lost when they’ve been targeted by commercial and ecological fishing and affected by the rising temperatures of global warming.
“It’s not so much the warm water that is killing things, it’s the lack of oxygen,” Ward said.
Putting the nautilus on the endangered species list would go a long way toward helping their species survive.
Since they are not the most adorable creature, it is a battle up hill.
An entire ecosystem relies on their existence. Grouper fish, octopus, sharks, and more, all feed on the nautilus — and humans, in turn, feed on the nautilus predators.
“We think the nautilus is the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” Ward said.
If people do not act quickly, though, the nautilus may be the next species to grace the list of extinct animals.
If you are interested in helping this project, please go to Savethenautilus.org for ways to raise awareness.
Reach reporter Deanna Isaacs at email@example.com. Twitter: @DeeLiteraryOne
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