Explore the History of the Nautilus with Dr. Peter Ward


Researcher Dr. Ward is here to tell Earth Rangers about the Nautilus, an amazing species that’s thought by many to have lived in the oceans since the time of the dinosaurs!

Dr Ward with Save the Nautilus founders Josiah and Ridgely
Dr Ward with Save the Nautilus founders Josiah and Ridgely

Five hundred and fifty million years ago the very first animals appeared on Earth. Most of them looked like weird crabs, and we now call them Trilobites. They lived in an underwater paradise where they had no enemies, thanks to a hard outer shell that no other animal could break. Our oceans were a very different place back then, with no fish, seals, otters, sharks or any living things on land. Yes, it was good to be a Trilobite living on the bottom of the sea five hundred and fifty million years ago in what we call the Cambrian Period, but then, disaster struck!

Fossil of a Nautiloid
Fossil of a Nautiloid

Right around 500 million years ago, the fossil record tells us that a new creature appeared, the ancient Nautiloid. They had a sturdy shell for protection, which was filled with gas to make them completely weightless in the water. Armed with powerful jaws and using jet propulsion to speed through the water they became the first mobile meat eaters. Some of these ancient Nautiloids were huge, with shells over 10 feet long, and weighing more than 500 pounds, if ever weighed in air. If one of these Nautiloids were brought to today’s world with a time machine they would hold their own in a fight with any shark. The Nautiloid used their strength, speed and intelligence to take over the ocean and develop a love for the Trilobite, a love for eating them! Pity the poor Trilobite – slowly walking across a seabottom, grazing on algae or seaweed– and then, from seemingly nowhere, a nest of snake-like tentacles were suddenly grasping the Trilobite, pulling the struggling creature into the range of their two giant, wickedly pointed jaws.

nautilus, swimming, ocean
Nautilus. Photo Credit: Flickr User, Joel Abroad

Today, Trilobites are long gone. However, those first mobile meat eaters are still here, far fewer in number and smaller in size, but otherwise remarkably unchanged from those that first appeared on Earth nearly a half billion years ago. The name of this true living fossil is the Nautilus, and it lives today in one of the coolest places on our planet – among the coral reefs of the largest of all oceans, the Pacific Ocean.

This incredible species has even had submarines named after it, which makes sense since these ships have so much in common with Nautili. They may not look the same, the one has a shell that is made of the same material as your dinner plate while the other is built with metal, but submarines and the Nautilus have a lot in common. A human submarine dives by letting water into large tanks, and comes back up by forcing this water out of these “ballast” tanks. The Nautilus does the same – it lets water into one or more of its many internal “chambers”, which are normally filled with gas; to come back up, it releases the water.

Nautili live deep in the ocean, for the most part – deeper, in fact, than all but a few human submarines. This deep ocean habitat they occupy has been one secret of its success for staying alive for millions of years. Its fantastically beautiful, spiraled shell has intricate interior chambers that make it strong enough to withstand the great pressures found in water this deep.

nautilus, shell, chambers, pearl

The Nautilus spends its time slowly swimming above the bottom, looking for unwary shrimp or crab, just as it has done for millions of years. It has lived through every disaster the Earth has thrown at it, including the giant asteroid that killed off all of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. But now the Nautilus is facing a danger that it may not be able to survive: humans.

The Nautilus shell is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful seashell of all, and some people like collecting them so much that they are hunting Nautili into extinction! It takes years for the beautiful Nautilus to grow its big pearly shell with flaming orange stripes but with a simple net and some bate it takes no time at all for them to be caught by humans for the purpose of making jewelry or ornaments. The Nautilus has lived in the planet’s oceans for millions of years; it’s time to protect this incredible animal that’s far more than just a pretty shell.

Find out more in the blog update ‘What’s A Nautilus?‘ Meet Nautilus protectors Josiah and Ridgely and get involved in protecting these amazing animals at SavetheNautilus.com.

Earth Rangers is a non-profit organization that works to inspire and educate children about the environment. At EarthRangers.com kids can play games, discover amazing facts, meet animal ambassadors and fundraise to protect biodiversity.