What are the chances of finding a super-rare creature in the wild twice in your life -- 30 years apart? If you're biologist Peter Ward, they're surprisingly good.
Ward is a biologist at the University of Washington who this July came across the Allonautilus scrobiculatus species of nautilus in the waters off Papua New Guinea after not having seen one for about three decades. (That's just about the time Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" was a hit on the radio for those Casey Casem fans out there.)
Nautiluses are often called "living fossils" -- not really something you hope to be when you're a human, but when you're an underwater sea creature, the term is something of an honor. The creature, a type of shellfish related to squid, octopus and cuttlefish, holds this distinction because it's been around on planet Earth for about 500 million years. That's long enough to have become embedded in rock and have its "spiral staircase" shell pattern become part of the fossil record.
As part of a project to survey nautilus populations, Ward and a team of researchers baited a stick with fish and chicken meat, suspended it between 500 and 1,300 feet (152 and 396 meters) below the surface of the water and filmed the activity. Eventually, Allonautilus showed up along with another nautilus and began feasting on the scraps, even while getting batted with the tail of a hungry sunfish that came around as well.
"For the next two hours, the sunfish just kept whacking them with its tail," Ward was quoted as saying in an article Tuesday from the University of Washington, where he's a professor of biology.
The researchers also captured several nautiluses including Allonautilus from depths of 600 feet (183 meters). Because the creatures don't like warm water, they tend to stay deep under the water by day and rise to the surface to feed at night, after surface waters cool. To keep the nautiluses comfy, the researchers kept them in chilled water on their ride up. They then took samples and returned the creatures to the site where they had been obtained.
Because of their mesmerizing spiral chambered shells, nautiluses are frequently mined, which has led to the extinction of some populations, Ward said.
"This unchecked practice could threaten a lineage that has been around longer than the dinosaurs were and survived the two largest mass extinctions in Earth's history," the UW article said. The article also mentions that in September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to propose that nautiluses become a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty.
Meanwhile, Ward feels a special connection with the creatures and hopes to see them again before they're all gone. "This could be the rarest animal in the world," he said. "We need to know if Allonautilus is anywhere else, and we won't know until we go out there and look."