nautilus in the water

Many people get upset when they hear that an animal is in danger of extinction, but most of us, at any age, assume there’s nothing we can do. Josiah Utsch thought differently a couple of years ago, when he was 11, after reading in a newspaper article that the chambered nautilus was threatened by trade in its shell.

Josiah had loved the nautilus since he was 7 when, like lots of kids, he was into dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, including the spiral-shelled ammonites. “I liked nautiluses because they were related to ammonites,” he says, “and when I heard that they were maybe going extinct, I was really devastated.”

His mom, Elise Strong, admits that at first her goal was just to calm him down. “He freaked out, saying, ‘Mom, we have to do something,’” she says. “I said, ‘Go find a nautilus charity.’”

Josiah couldn’t find a nautilus organization to give his birthday money to, and a general ocean conservation group wouldn’t satisfy him. So Strong told him to write to someone mentioned in the article and ask him or her what to do. She says, “I figured he would send an email and no one was going to respond, and we’d be done.”

Instead, 15 minutes later, Josiah had an answer from Dr. Peter Ward, paleontologist and professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington. Josiah told his mom, “Dr. Ward says there is no charity — but I should start one.”

And that’s exactly what Josiah did. Since then, he and his friend Ridgely Kelly have raised $20,000 for nautilus conservation research through their organization, Save the Nautilus.

What Is a Nautilus Anyway?

The nautilus is a cephalopod, related to the octopus, squid and cuttlefish, but it’s the only living member of its group with an external shell. That is what has gotten it into trouble; its beautiful striped shell is sold for decoration and made into jewelry.

Josiah isn’t the only one who’s interested in the nautilus because of its similarity to ancient creatures, according to researcher Gregory Jeff Barord, a PhD student at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College.

“They’re one of the oldest animals on the planet,” he says. “We think they trace back to at least 500 million years ago, and throughout that time we think the nautilus has remained the same, so lots of people call them a living fossil.”

The nautilus has far more tentacles than its relatives — more than 90 — and that comes in handy in its deep-sea habitat. “Some of their tentacles are able to kind of taste the current to find something to eat,” Barord says. “And they use most of the rest to search their habitat for prey, where it’s really dark and if you have 90 arms, it’s easier than if you just have two arms.”

Interestingly, the nautilus seems to be way more intelligent than you’d expect for such a primitive creature. Along with his advisor, Jennifer Basil, Barord studies their learning and memory in a lab where they currently house a dozen of them.

“They seem to be able to learn and memorize things,” he says. “We train them to go to a certain goal and see how they respond if we change their environment.” The nautilus can use features of its surroundings to navigate, and the lab’s work has shown that they can remember what they learn for up to two weeks.

boy with save the nautilus shirt

Nautilus Conservation

Barord also does fieldwork with Dr. Ward on nautilus populations in the wild. Because not enough data have been collected, the nautilus is not listed as endangered, but more than 579,000 nautilus shells were imported to the United States alone between 2005 and 2008, and that raises concern.

Since about the 1970s, the nautilus shell has been traded across the world as jewelry items, Barord says. “Nobody really kept track of it,” he says. “We’re trying to backtrack to see how many there are left.”

Initial findings are that fisheries do have a negative effect on the nautilus population, and that’s before even considering climate change and other environmental changes. And because it reproduces slowly, more like much larger animals, the nautilus can’t bounce back from these pressures quickly.

“Most invertebrates reproduce quickly,” Barord says. “The nautilus is the exact opposite.”

They don’t become sexually mature until up to 15 years of age, they lay no more than 10 to 12 eggs at a time and the eggs can take a year or longer to develop.

Another interesting — and fortunate — characteristic is that unlike most deep-sea creatures, which die when brought to the surface, that doesn’t bother nautiluses, so researchers can trap them, bring them to the surface and count them. They also count them using an underwater video camera.

Action for the Nautilus

So is it any wonder that Josiah sprang into action for such a cool creature? One of the first things he did was think of his friend Ridgely Kelly.

“We both really share the passion for animals and animal conservation,” Josiah says. “So when I thought, ‘Who do I know who would really be interested?’ right away I thought, ‘Ridgely!’”

Ridgely contributed his artistic skill by designing a T-shirt to sell, and Josiah’s mom persuaded a friend to help make a website. She still wasn’t convinced anything would come of it, though.

“I thought our friends would donate and maybe we’d make $200,” she says. “Then Time magazine for kids picked it up — we had hundreds of letters from kids who had bake sales and walked dogs.” Later, Josiah and Ridgely also won the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which honors young people who’ve helped others and the environment.

Meeting the Nautilus

For most of this time, Josiah and Ridgely had never seen a nautilus except in photos, but last February, their parents’ Christmas present to them was a trip to the research site in American Samoa.

Josiah helped construct some traps and learned a little about how frustrating it can be to do this kind of research: There was trouble getting a boat, so he almost didn’t get to see a nautilus at all. “I only got to see the nautilus on the very last day; later that day, we left for the airport,” he says.

But it was worth the wait. “It was just really cool to finally see this animal that I’ve been trying to protect for the first time,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing you can just go out on the reef and snorkel up to, so it’s a really special opportunity to see a wild nautilus.”

If You’d Like to Help

Conservationists hope that data from the research will get nautiluses listed as endangered so they’ll be protected from trade. But even if you don’t have the drive that Josiah has, there’s something everyone can do to help.

“If people stop buying nautilus shells, they’ll stop selling them,” Strong says. “If owning a nautilus shell becomes like owning a piece of ivory, people will think of it differently. They won’t think, ‘Oh, what a beautiful thing.’ They’ll think, ‘Some endangered creature died for that.’”

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