'Living Fossil' Spotted In The South Pacific For The First Time In Three Decades

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Nautiluses are often called “living fossils” because they are members of an ancient lineage of underwater shelled creatures that have been present on Earth for over 500 million years. They resemble the extinct ammonites known only from fossils, but while nautilusesare related to this group, they are also related to living octopuses and squids. Thousands of nautilus species have existed over the last 500 million years, but only a handful remain living to this day and they are seemingly in great danger of vanishing forever. This mysterious undersea cephalopod is perhaps best known for its large, distinctively patterned shell, which is part of the reason some species of this animal have become exceedingly rare. Shell mining is likely responsible for driving them close to extinction.  

University of Washington biology professor Peter Ward revealed this month he spotted the nautilus Allonautilus scrobiculatus off the coast of Papua New Guinea for the first time since 1984. To find the Allonautilus, Ward and his team set up a bait system—essentially chicken meat attached to a pole—at a depths between 500 and 1300 feet below the ocean’s surface. Then they set up a camera and waited.

After watching endless hours of sped up footage waiting for a sighting of Allonautilus, it finally emerged from the deep onto film in July 2015. Since then, the team has actually been able to trap some of these animals  and bring them to the surface for DNA samples being careful not to let them get too warm before they are released back into the chilly depths. The researchers also noticed something shocking that had not been documented before— Allonautilus has a thick, slimy, hairy cover on its shell. There are definitely many more secrets of the Allonautilus to discover and the team hopes to be able to find more of them to study before they become any rarer.

Nautilus shells have been wildly popular as decorative items since the Renaissance. The pearly nacre contained inside their shells has made them a hot commodity for decorative carving and jewelry. This September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide if nautiluses should be listed as an internationally protected species of wildlife. If these animals become protected under this agreement, called the CITES treaty, then they will hopefully be preserved from future exploitation and sales of their shells worldwide will greatly decline.

Read more at forbes.com

cynthia hirschhornwater