Naturalists have long marveled at the shell of the chambered nautilus. The logarithmic spiralechoes the curved arms of hurricanes and distant galaxies. In Italy, the Medicis turned thepearly shells into ornate ornaments.
Now, scientists say, humans are loving the living fossil to death. From New York Times reports in Sunday China Daily http://twitter.com/#!/China_Daily | Follow me at http://twitter.com/#!/LearnFromNature
The culprit? Growing global sales of jewelry and ornaments derived from the lustrous shell.Fishermen are killing the nautilus by the millions, scientists fear. On eBay and elsewhere, smallshells sell as earrings for $19.95. Big ones – the size of dinner plates – go for $56, oftenbisected to display the elegant chambers.
Catching the nautilus is largely unregulated; fishermen from poor South Pacific countries gladly accept $1 per shell.
“In certain areas, it’s threatened with extermination,” said NeilH. Landman, a biologist and paleontologist at the AmericanMuseum of Natural History in New York.
Scientists worry that rising demand may end up eradicating ananimal that grows slowly and needs 15 years or more to reachsexual maturity.
It lives on deep coral reefs in the warm southwestern Pacific.While it is easy to catch with traps on long lines, the depths -as much as 610 meters, below the range of sunlight and scuba divers – make it hard to study.Last summer, biologists began a formal census in at least six regions known to harbor the shycreatures. Dr. Landman said scientists must overcome “a tremendous lack of knowledge” aboutits numbers and geographic range.
The fossil record dates the nautilus’s ancestors to the late Cambrian period, 500 million yearsago.
Some were true sea monsters, with gargantuan shells. Over eons, the thousands of specieshave dwindled to a handful.
The word “nautilus” comes from the Greek for boat. When the first shells arrived inRenaissance Europe, stunned collectors saw the perfect spirals as reflecting the larger order ofthe universe.
The nautilus erects barriers inside its shell as it grows, leaving unoccupied chambers behind.Like a submarine, it changes the amount of gas in the empty spaces to adjust its buoyancy.And it uses jet propulsion to swim.
To feed on fish and shrimp, it has up to 90 small tentacles – and, like all cephalopods, it has arelatively large brain and eyes. It cannot go too deep lest its shell implode – also like asubmarine.
Deceptive marketing may obscure the threat to the nautilus. The opalescent material in theshell is sold as a cheaper alternative to pearls.
It is machined into pleasing shapes and sold as “Osmena pearl.” (In the Philippines theOsmena family is a political dynasty; its name lends cachet.)
A recent Web ad offers an “Osmena Pearl Sterling Silver Necklace” for $495. Collectors talk ofrare “Nautilus pearls” that sell for thousands of dollars each. Scientists dismiss them asfraudulent.
Biologists have slowly compiled anecdotal reports ofpopulation declines near the Philippines, Indonesiaand New Caledonia.
But at a conference last year in Dijon, France,Patricia S. De Angelis of the United States Fish andWildlife Service reported that America had imported579,000 specimens from 2005 to 2008.
“The figure shocked the hell out of me,” Dr. Wardrecalled.
Suddenly, a species thought to be fairly plentiful became the object of serious concern. Thissummer, the Fish and Wildlife Service paid for Dr. Ward’s team to begin a global census off thePhilippine island of Bohol, which figures prominently in the shell trade.
In August, he said the team was setting 40 traps a day but was catching (and releasing) twocreatures at most – a tenth to a hundredth the rate of a decade ago. “A horror show,” he calledit.
He suspected one particular kind of nautilus “is already extinct in the Philippines” or nearly so.
The team plans to expand the census in December to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Marinebiologists are lobbying for protection of the nautilus under the same United Nations rules thatprotect the American black bear, the African gray parrot, the green iguana and thousands ofother creatures. The rules allow commercial trade if it is legal and sustainable.
Dr. De Angelis described the nautilus team’s goals as getting to the bottom of the populationquestion and coming up with a credible estimate for the dimensions of the global trade.
“Ultimately,” she said, “we’re looking at whether this is sustainable.”
- Too Much Love Threatens Chambered Nautilus, Scientists Say (nytimes.com)
- Magical seashells of fun and horror (sfgate.com)
- The Dire Plight Of The Chambered Nautilus And The Healthier Appreciation Of Bob James’ “Nautilus” (theawl.com)
- That Whole Supernova Thing Was a Big Misunderstanding [Science Watch] (gawker.com)
- Species of spaces (thedizzies.blogspot.com)
- 5th August 1958:-USS Nautilus Goes Under North Pole (magsx2.wordpress.com)
- Rose Mae Ann Abing : Philippines (kiva.org)
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Protect All Chimpanzees (legalaction4animalrights.net)
- Bucks Blog: Tuesday Reading: Reassessing the Role of Mammograms (bucks.blogs.nytimes.com)