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Nautilus May be in Trouble; International Research Suggests

July 22, 2013

Nautiluses, the strange-looking 500 million year old marine creatures, may be in trouble. NOAA Fisheries recently funded a researcher from the University of Washington, Dr. Peter Ward, to conduct population studies of nautiluses in Fiji and American Samoa that will help us better understand what is happening to them around the world.

“Nautiluses are really cool animals to study because they are living fossils that provide us a beautiful window of what things were like 500 million years ago,” said Dr. Ward from the University of Washington.

Nautiluses, related to octopuses and squids, are easily differentiated by their unique shells. They are mainly found in the western Pacific Ocean and in the Indian Ocean, including the U.S. territory of American Samoa. Scientists believe habitat destruction, climate change and over-harvesting of nautilus for its shells- used in jewelry, buttons, and other decorative items- may be contributing to the decline of nautiluses.

“I and other colleagues of mine are very concerned about the conservation of these amazing creatures”, said Dr. Ward. “Six

 months ago you could buy a nautilus shell for about $25; now the same shell costs over $250. It’s very clear there is a growing market for nautilus shells, despite alarming declines being observed in some populations we’ve looked at.” 

Dr. Ward’s research will help us determine if nautilus populations are at risk and in need of protection. These species are susceptible to over-fishing because they take a long time to grow and have few juveniles each breeding cycle. It has already been documented that one population of nautiluses has crashed in the Philippines because of overfishing.  

To conduct his research, Dr. Ward uses baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVS) to record nautiluses going into traps. The review of this footage allows for population counts of the animals. In addition, Dr. Ward takes non-lethal tentacle snips of the nautiluses caught in the traps and will later conduct DNA analysis to determine if the nautiluses he’s catching around the world are distinct species.   

Dr. Ward has completed a similar study along the Great Barrier Reef and a preliminary study in the Philippines. He will be heading back to the Philippines in the summer of 2013 to complete more work on local nautilus populations. The final results of these studies will help inform appropriate conservation and management measures for nautiluses. Caption (left): Peter Ward holding a nautilus during his reseach in American Samoa.