The chambered nautilus (Allonautilus and Nautilus species) is the only living descendent of a group of ocean creatures that thrived in the seas 500 million years ago when the earth’s continents were still forming. It is even older than the dinosaurs! Chambered nautili are known as living fossils because they have remained virtually unchanged for millions of years.
These cephalopods (animals with no backbones but with tentacles or arms) are found in the coastal reefs around Southeast Asia and Australia, including American Samoa. They take between 10 and 17 years to reach maturity and lay only one egg at a time, which must incubate for one year. Research scientists have had little success breeding these animals in captivity; eggs will hatch but the young do not live long enough to reach maturity.
Little is known about nautilus populations in the wild. The very first population estimate was made only in 2010. Chambered nautili are found in international trade primarily for their shells and meat. In addition, their shells are prized by collectors around the world and they are harvested for the aquarium trade. Due to their life history characteristics, it is believed that chambered nautilus could be vulnerable to trade. Nautilus species are also threatened by habitat degradation as their native reefs are polluted and destroyed by destructive fishing practices and development.
Conserving the Chambered Nautilus
The nautilus is not currently listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or protected specifically under U.S. domestic laws. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Service) is funding research to gain a better understanding of their current status and the impact of nautilus fishing and trade on wild populations. The Service is collaborating with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), other range countries, researchers, and others to:
- share information and address the knowledge gaps on the conservation, trade, and management of Nautilus and Allonautilus species;
- better understand the ecology of the species and obtain population data;
- examine local fishery and market data fishery and regulations throughout its range;
- explore the cultural and economic significance of the nautilus to local livelihoods; and
- better understand the various nautilus commodities and consumer groups are also needed.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is also working to assess the conservation status of nautilus using the IUCN Red List Categories.
Also be sure to check out an article featured in TIME For Kids on one child’s efforts to conserve this amazing creature.