CITES Proposal | Description | Habitat | Threats | Taxonomy | Additional Information
Chambered nautiluses are slow-growing, late-maturing marine invertebrates that live on tropical coastal reefs in the Indo-Pacific. Chambered nautiluses may be native to as many as 17 countries, including the U.S. territory of American Samoa. These animals do not move freely across the open ocean or deep water, and therefore populations that are geographically-separated may represent distinct species.
Harvested primarily for their beautiful shells, and not as a source of food, nautiluses are sold as souvenirs to tourists and shell collectors, and as jewelry and home decoration items. Living animals are taken for public aquariums and research. Existing protections are poorly implemented and enforced, and with no known management plans, this has resulted in the largely unregulated harvest and trade of these beautiful creatures.
Inclusion of the Family Nautilidae in Appendix II of CITES would ensure that continued harvest is legal and sustainable, and would remove loopholes in existing protections that currently do not apply to all species of chambered nautiluses. It would strengthen the range States’ ability to address illegal trade in these species.
The United States, along with Fiji, India, and Palau, have submitted a proposal for consideration at CITES CoP17 to include the family of chambered nautiluses (Nautilidae), which includes seven species, in Appendix II of CITES. At present, no species of chambered nautilus is protected under CITES.
Chambered nautiluses grow slowly, maturing around 10-15 years of age, and producing a small number of eggs that require at least a year-long incubation period. These deep-sea scavengers spend much of their time hovering along the reef at depths of 100-300 meters (330-990 feet), dangling their tentacles as they move along in search of food. They have up to 90 retractable, suckerless tentacles with grooves that secrete mucous to help in obtaining food and attaching to the reef face when resting.
Among the last representatives of the ancient lineages of cephalopods (animals with no backbones but with tentacles or arms), chambered nautiluses are easily distinguished from their closest living relatives -- the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish -- by their distinctive external coiled shells. A feat in molluscan evolution, the internal chambers of their shell provide a buoyancy mechanism to facilitate movement that inspired the inventor of the earliest modern submarine to name the invention “Nautilus.”
Chambered nautiluses live in close association with steep-sloped reef fronts and sandy, silty, or muddy-bottomed surfaces. They cannot withstand temperatures that are too warm (25° C; 77° F), nor depths that are too deep (600- 800 meters; 1970-2625 feet), and they do not swim in the open water column. Thus, temperature, depth, and open ocean limit their movement and act as geographic barriers between populations so that they are very unlikely to recolonize an area that has been overharvested except through random, chance events, such as monsoons or tropical storms.
The primary threats to Family Nautilidae include:
• targeted, market-driven harvest for international trade in their shells;
• habitat degradation throughout much of their range;
• predation by bony fishes, octopus, and possibly sharks; and
• risks associated with ecotourism.
Given their slow growth, late maturity, low reproductive output, and low mobility, chambered nautiluses are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. These threats make it difficult for them to recover from overharvest or catastrophic events.
Read our blog to learn more about chambered nautilus conservation efforts and visit the NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service websites for more information on U.S. research to assess the impact of harvest and international trade on these iconic species.
Read the proposal for inclusion of Family Nautilidae in Appendix II at CoP17.
Save the Nautilus is an organization, started by some inspiring young conservationists, that is dedicated to raising awareness about the chambered nautilus and its conservation. Their informative website can be accessed here.