December 26, 2012

Maine boys try to throw lifeline to a lovely, overfished mollusk

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The chambered nautilus, a prehistoric mollusk whose shell is a nearly perfect spiral, is being hunted to extinction because of its beauty.

click image to enlarge

The chambered nautilus has been around since prehistoric times, and Josiah Utsch and Ridgely Kelly are trying to ensure its continued survival by raising money and awareness for the creature’s plight.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

A nautilus stenomphalus in the Ribbon Reefs, part of the Great Barrier Reef off of Queensland, Australia.

Peter Ward photo

While the world has yet to pay much attention to the issue, two boys in Maine have emerged among the loudest voices urging protection for the species.

Josiah Utsch, 12, of Cape Elizabeth and Ridgely Kelly, 11, of Bremen have raised nearly $10,000 to buy underwater equipment for scientists studying the creatures. Most of the money has come from other children.

"It's been a kid-driven thing so far," said Elise Strong, Josiah's mother. "We hope to get the adults involved."

Publicity generated by the boys has raised awareness about the issue, said Peter Ward, a biologist at the University of Washington. "They have very much played a huge part in saving the nautilus."

The chambered nautilus, which lives in the Pacific Ocean near Asia and Australia, is considered a living fossil. Modern nautiluses are nearly identical to fossilized nautiluses that are nearly 200 million years old, Ward said.

The nautilus has experienced little evolutionary change because of its stable habitat -- deep-water slopes adjacent to coral reefs, Ward said.

The nautilus uses tentacles to catch small prey, like shrimp. It also scavenges dead creatures that tumble down from coral reefs.

The spiraled shell of the nautilus is divided into chambers, with the animal occupying the outermost chamber. The inner chambers, filled with gas, help the nautilus maintain neutral buoyancy.

Fishermen catch the softball-size creatures with traps that operate like lobster traps. It takes a nautilus 15 years to reach sexual maturity, so it is vulnerable to overfishing, Ward said.

Josiah Utsch said it's hard to imagine that an animal that has survived for 200 million years could become extinct in his lifetime.

"It would be a tragedy to survive a ton of mass extinctions and have them wiped out by a human mass extinction," he said.

A year ago, Josiah's grandmother sent him a New York Times article reporting that fishermen have been killing nautiluses by the millions to meet the growing worldwide demand for their lustrous shells.

The opalescent material from the shells' inner surface is ground into pearl shapes and sold as a cheaper alternative to pearls, usually marketed as "Osmena pearl."

Unlike rhinoceros horns or elephant tusks, which are considered contraband, nautilus shells have no protection, and the threat to the species has gone largely unnoticed by the public, the article noted.

Internet search results for the phrase "save the nautilus" are dominated by www.savethenautilus.com, the website the Maine boys created a year ago, and links to news articles about their efforts.

Eager to donate money to help one of his favorite animals, Josiah contacted Ward, who was quoted in The New York Times article, and asked if there was an organization devoted to helping the nautilus. Ward said there was no such group.

So Josiah, with help from his friend Ridgely, created the website and started accepting donations, using the nonprofit status of the University of Washington.

The boys also started selling "Save the Nautilus" T-shirts, designed by Ridgely.

Time for Kids magazine published a story about their campaign earlier this year, and soon the boys began getting emails and handwritten letters from teachers and children from around the nation. They also began receiving checks.

Children raised money walking dogs, donating their allowances and asking friends to donate in lieu of birthday presents.

A 9-year-old boy from Bloomfield, N.J., sent a check for $12, saying he had raised the money by selling pencils.

One girl, Victoria, 11, from Uniondale, N.Y., wrote to the boys that she had read about their campaign at school.

"I want to help save the nautilus," she wrote. "Here is $20 doolers." A 12-year-old girl named Sadie from Palm Beach County, Fla., created a list of websites of companies that sell nautilus shells. She sent the list to the boys, who put the information on their website.

Ward said more data is needed about the range and abundance of the nautilus to enable scientists to estimate its population and determine a sustainable catch.

Ward and other marine biologists are lobbying for protection of the nautilus under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the United Nations rules that combat illegal trade in species such as rhinos, tigers and elephants.

The boys, who went to Washington state recently to meet with Ward, will go to American Samoa in February to help with his study. Their parents will pay for the trip, and Ward will provide housing.

Ward said the boys will go scuba diving and help him determine how fast the nautilus can swim, and how long it takes it to reach its natural habitat, as much as 2,000 feet below the surface, after it is dropped at the surface.

He said the boys will monitor the creatures with radio transmitters attached to their shells.

Ward, 63, said he's impressed by the boys' passion for science, and their persistence and ability to work hard.

"They remind me of myself when I was young," he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

 

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