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Meet Gregory Jeff Barord – A Scientist Studying One of the Oldest Living Fossils on Earth

Have you ever seen a scavenging snail-looking ocean creature with big eyes that likes to eat chicken?  Chambered nautiluses—bizarre-looking deep sea creatures that have been around for 500 million years, even longer than dinosaurs, are still a source of mystery to researchers. Meet Gregory Barord, a PhD candidate at the City University of New York – Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, who studies nautilus far away from their habitat.

Why nautiluses? What interests you about them?

I became interested in marine biology as a kid and have loved cephalopods since the age of four. After watching a TV show on giant squid with my dad, I told him I wanted to become a marine researcher. In 2006, as a young scientist working in Galveston, Texas, I learned about nautiluses while listening to a talk by Dr. Bruce Carlson Exit. This large carnivorous mollusk is closely related to octopus, squid and cuttlefish, but in many ways is very different from these cephalopod species. The differences interested me and I wanted to unravel some of the mysteries about nautiluses.

Nautilus pompilius in the waters off of the Philippines. The crack seen in the shell may be a scar from attempted predation. Credit: Gregory Jeff Barord

In Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, Greg Barord and two local assistants retrieve a trap used to catch nautilus from their boat using a hand-operated winch system. Credit: Dr. Anthony Ilano

Greg Barord in bustling Times Square in New York City, where he attended graduate school, a contrast to his remote field work sites all over the world. Credit: Karen Keister
How easy is it to find and catch nautilus?

It’s quite a challenge. First, nautiluses live in locations far from NYC. It takes me 24 hours of flying to get to them. Then you have to set up all the gear and equipment, much of it made by us, under hot and labor intensive conditions. But once you are there, they are not so hard to catch. Nautiluses are meat-loving scavengers. They roam around the bottom of the ocean seeking the smell of rotting meat and have a special appetite for chicken. So we set our traps with chicken, drop them between 300 and 400 meters deep and hope for the best. It can take an hour to pull the traps back up to the boat, and it’s not uncommon to pull out an empty age. We also attach underwater cameras to our traps to record nautiluses and other deep sea animals.

Do you have any interesting stories from the field?

Yes! I remember one day in Fiji we were working by the water and a truck driver stopped to offer us a ride because the island was evacuating to higher ground because of a tsunami warning. We sat on blankets visiting with the local community while waiting to get back to work. But back to nautiluses, you normally spend hours viewing videos of the bottom of the ocean taken with underwater cameras and see the same thing—a cage with meat in it surrounded by an empty blue space. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s all the same, but then all of a sudden something really cool happens—like seeing a deep-sea octopus, a large shark crash into our trap or a group of nautiluses entering the cage. I still remember the first time I pulled up a trap with a nautilus. After so many hours of hard work, it was an amazing feeling.

What's your typical day like as a graduate student?

My situation is pretty unique. I spend 90 percent of my time studying nautiluses in Dr. Jennifer Basil’s Exit lab, far away from their location in the wild in one of the busiest cities in the world – New York City. Here in New York most of the time is spent in the lab, writing, teaching and taking care of the nautiluses we have in tanks. It’s kind of like taking care of a high maintenance pet. You get up early to feed them and run experiments all day long. Then 10 percent of the time I am in the field, somewhere in the middle of the ocean, looking for nautiluses with Dr. Peter Ward Exit. In the field you work hard from dawn until dusk, getting all the traps and gear ready and watching hours of video clips. You get up before sunrise, load up the boat, pull cameras and gear out of the water under the hot sun and then return at dusk to reset all the traps and gear. In between this work you are writing papers and grant proposals to fund future research. So the work never stops, but it is fun.

Do you have advice for aspiring scientists?

I think one of the most important things is to not be afraid of following your passion. Don’t ever think you cannot do something you are excited about and believe in. Take the example of Josiah Utsch and Ridgely Kelly. These two young boys, at the time only 11 years old, were so inspired and concerned with nautilus they started their own fundraiser - “Save the NautilusExit, which to date has contributed $20,000 to support nautilus research. A good example of how two young kids invigorated the nautilus scientific community. So follow your passion.