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UW expedition gives insight into plight of “living fossil”

Ward

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Paleontologist Peter Ward recently returned from an expedition to Fiji and Samoa where he and a team of researchers may have discovered a new species of Nautilus. 

Photo by Jessie Kim

UW researchers and two 12-year-olds recently returned from an expedition that may give new insight into the genetics and population of the chambered nautilus, a cephalopod mollusk found in the Pacific and Eastern Indian oceans.

The nautilus has remained nearly unchanged for almost 500 million years, but little research has been done on the creature, often referred to as a  “living fossil.” Peter Ward, a UW paleontologist, spent five weeks in Fiji and Samoa researching the nautilus population. 

While on the expedition, Ward said his team may have discovered a new species of nautilus. 

“This one definitely looks different to me,” he said. “The color, the size … there’s a lot of stuff that’s different.”

The nautilus that Ward described was originally discovered in the 1980s, but at the time it was determined that all nautiluses were of the same species. Ward’s team was the first to see this particular nautilus in 35 years.

Ward’s team is currently doing genetic research on samples taken from the expedition. If the Samoan nautilus is determined to be of a different species, Ward said it would mean that every region has a distinct species of nautilus.

Funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service as a part of an effort to list the nautilus for protection, Ward’s research included building traps to capture and study nautiluses in the region. His team brought back more than 200 hours of video that will be used to assess the population.

Ward said there are almost 10 times more nautiluses in Fiji, Samoa, and the Great Barrier Reef than there are in the Philippines, where their prized shells are being sold for jewelry.

“They’re fishing everything out. … There’s almost nothing left in the Philippines,” he said.

The nautilus was nominated to be included in the next Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) meeting. If CITES puts forward the nautilus for protection, it would prevent trade of nautilus shells. If there are different species in each region, Ward said their protection is even more important.

Ricky Dooley, one of three graduate students that joined Ward on the expedition, said preserving the nautilus is important for understanding the history of evolution because the creature was around nearly 260 million years before dinosaurs.   

“These give us insight into the past,” he said. “But we’re wiping them out for cosmetic reasons.”

Two young boys from Maine joined Ward on the expedition because they also believe that the nautilus should be preserved. Josiah Utsch and Ridgely Kelly read about Ward’s work in The New York Times and learned that more than 500,000 nautilus shells were imported to the United States between 2005 and 2008.

“After I found out about the nautilus’s plight, I tried to find a website that helps protect the nautilus … and I didn’t find anything,” Utsch said.

Utsch emailed Ward about helping raise money for protection of the nautilus, and after Ward confirmed there were no websites to help the nautilus plight, Utsch and Kelly started a site of their own, raising $9,000 to buy a camera and light that would document the nautilus population in Fiji and Samoa.

Utsch and Kelly saw the creature they worked to save for the first time while in Fiji, and marveled about the new insights into regional differences and habits of the nautilus.

“Saving the nautilus is mostly about getting people interested,” Utsch said. “I hope that people think it’s a really cool creature like I do.”

Reach reporter Amy Busch at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @AmyBusch2

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