The Chambered Nautilus

By Machel Spence

chambered nautilus shells

My love affair with the nautilus began as love affairs often do...a book fell on my head while I was visiting the public library in 9th grade. I was 14 and had always collected seashells with my mother or grandmother when we went for walks on the beaches off the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico where I grew up. I always gravitated towards the nonfiction section and even more accurately the science section with lots of books on nature. This particular book that “magically” fell on my head was all about the chambered nautilus and various cephalopods that were considered odd. These creatures, including the living fossil we know as the chambered nautilus, are considered among the most difficult to study, in or out of captivity.

I read that book back-to-back twice and immediately started drawing and studying every cephalopod I could get information on. At the time, I was actually headed towards a career in mortuary science and by 12th grade I was the only woman in my high school getting acceptance letters from mortuary science schools. I switched gears soon after graduating and decided to become a zoologist and literally dive into everything related to the sea. Of course, we did not have any of the species of nautilus off either coast of Florida, so in my many dives, I studied deep living echinoderms, sharks, and one of my favorites, the horseshoe crab. Do you ever feel like there is a force in nature that pulls you towards it? That is what the nautilus and argonautidae species have done to me. I teach about them in my marine biology classes, and I advocate for them through educating people to not purchase either of these species in shell shops or overseas, where you do not know if they have been found on the beach or collected alive.

chambered nautilus underwater

The chambered nautilus is a nocturnal slow-growing marine invertebrate of seven different species that are voracious hunters. They do not reach maturity for 15 to 20 years and lay a single egg that takes a year to incubate. The chambers inside a nautilus shell allow the nautilus to control the buoyancy, salinity levels, and gas exchange within the animal, so that it can dive to depths of 1,000 feet. They are not utilized for their meat but are collected for their beautiful shell, which has drastically affected their population in their natural habitat. This living fossil did not even have an estimated population count until 2010 and the overfishing of them for their shell and habitat loss through the devastation of the world’s oceans has pushed them towards becoming an endangered species. Our lack of understanding towards these and other creatures of the deep has irreversably damaged this wonderful being among many others along the shores, in our forests, and in the world’s oceans.

inside chambered nautilus

The paper nautilus is on the decline as well. This amazing little pelagic octopus creates the most lovely casing for its young to incubate in and then releases it to the sea when they have hatched. They are a wonderful introduction to sexual dimorphism as the female can be up to 600 times larger than the male! They are known as the “seafaring octopus,” and their paper thin cradles can be found along the beaches of the east coast of North America and tropical and sub-tropical seas. There has been a rise in ocean acidification, which has drastically affected the delicate shells of these and other marine mollusks due to our carbon pollution and reduction of the pH levels of the world’s oceans.

But…there is hope. There are choices you can make as a living organism on this planet to not take more than you need, to understand that every piece of organic material you pick up from your peaceful beach walks was once an intricate part of a complex system, which should be respected and not coveted. If you cannot live without a nautilus or paper nautilus in your collection, educate yourself about where it came from. You can find these lovely seashells in vintage collections like I do or antique stores if you’re lucky, and you will not have to carry the possible guilt of supporting the further decline of these amazing animals.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.

More about seashells

No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.

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