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A Talk on the Wild Side.

8-year-old Drums Up Support for Nautilus Conservation

Gretchen's mom made her a nautilus costume for Halloween. Photo courtesy Courtney Googe

The chambered nautilus is known as a living fossil because it has changed little over millions of years. Eight-year-old Gretchen Googe of Texas is determined to keep the word “living” a part of that description – she was even a nautilus for Halloween!

Little is known about nautilus populations in the wild. Photo Credit: USFWS

The nautilus is a cephalopod, which is an animal with no backbone but with tentacles or arms, found in the coastal reefs around Southeast Asia and Australia. Other cephalopods include the octopus and squid, but the nautilus is the only cephalopod with an external shell. 

Taking up to 17 years to reach maturity, the nautilus is a slow grower.  It reproduces slowly, too, laying one egg at a time, which must incubate for one year.

And as anyone can see, the nautilus is beautiful, and its shell is used in jewelry and other items.  In fact, more than 789,000 items containing nautilus were imported into the United States between 2005 and 2010, nearly all from nautiluses harvested from the wild.

Gretchen and nautilus
Gretchen holds a chambered nautilus. Photo courtesy Courtney Googe

Slow growth and reproduction combined with high demand raises red flags. Is the trade in these animals sustainable or is the nautilus population dwindling dangerously? Conservation agencies, including the Service, are working on the answer.

The use of nautilus shell in jewelry got to Gretchen. Says her mom, Courtney: “It just broke her heart that people would be willing to sacrifice the animal just for a pretty object.”

“‘Why would anyone do that?!’” Courtney says Gretchen wanted to know. She may not get an answer, but that hasn’t stopped Gretchen from working to conserve a critter she describes as “an important part of the sea” as well as weird, cute and adorable.

Her love for the chambered nautilus began a few years ago when she got a book on sea creatures for Christmas. She and her parents started researching the nautilus online, and at the end of first grade, she gave a little lecture to introduce her classmates to the nautilus.

She also started giving impromptu talks about the nautilus at family gatherings, which raised a little money for another child-led conservation effort for the chambered nautilus called savethenautilus.com, which was started by an 11-year-old

Gretchen and nautilus
Gretchen drew this design at a park and caught the attention of a nautilus scientist. Photo courtesy Courtney Googe

A nautilus design Gretchen drew at a local park caught the attention of nautilus scientist Greg Barord, and he helped arrange a surprise present for her 8th birthday. She got a behind-the-scenes tour at the Children's Aquarium of Fair Park in Dallas, and she even got to help a biologist at the aquarium who was working with a live nautilus.

She didn’t know she was helping a nautilus, until she and the biologist brought up the net with the creature inside. Mom Courtney says: “She remained very calm and still, so not to hurt the nautilus, but the big, bright eyes, smile and blissfully whispered ‘It's a nautilus!’ said it all.”

And then there’s the Halloween costume (kudos to mom for making it and a Save the Nautilus backpack). In return for candy, Gretchen handed out info-cards so people might know more about the animal behind her costume.

Courtney says Gretchen’s “drive is still going strong.”

So if anyone needs a conservation kick-start as 2015 opens, just remember 8-year-old Gretchen and her passion for the chambered nautilus.

-- Matt Trott, External Affairs

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