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Peter Ward featured on KUOW on the study of nautilus, a "living fossil"

Friday, April 14, 2023 - 15:00

UW Biology Professor Peter Ward was interviewed by KUOW on his 50+ years of research on the nautilus.

You know when you find someone so knowledgeable about a fascinating subject and so excited to talk about it, that you could listen to them for hours? Well, that pretty well describes paleontologist and University of Washington biology professor Peter Ward. He's an expert on one of the least understood and oldest animals on Earth.

The nautilus is a cephalopod, a type of mollusk, and a distant cousin to squids, octopi, and cuttlefish. About 500 million years ago, before the time of dinosaurs, their ancestors were among the largest, most complex, most common animals on Earth. Ward calls them “living fossils.”

Scientists know relatively little about the nautilus compared to other animals, but they've identified three new species in recent months. We asked Peter Ward to share some of his excitement about them and his responses took us to some unexpected places.

Peter Ward: Oh, there's so much we don't know. But this is really true of almost any species that lives at the depths that nautiluses do. Once you get down below about 200 to 300 feet the biology changes. The creatures down there are extremely long-lived, predation is low, but fecundity, the ability of them to reproduce, is also very low. And this is certainly the case for nautiluses. There are only two places on the planet where a diver could see them. One is New Caledonia and the other is Vanuatu. I've had the privilege to be absolutely scared out of my mind, to dive at night and find wild animals swimming up the reefs. Everywhere else, they're way, way deeper.

The word "nautilus" comes from the ancient Greek word for sailor, but as Ward suggests, they're really more of a submariner. Unlike its cousins, the nautilus lives inside a hard external shell that has multiple closed interior chambers. And a nautilus has around 90 tentacles, the most of any cephalopod.

Think about those Chinese balloons from a couple of weeks ago. Chinese balloons and nautiluses are kind of the same thing. They float along. They use very little energy. Nautiluses bounce around the bottom. They don't need much food. They expend very, very little energy. And their big shell may serve as a kind of scuba tank. They’re really able to go to places that fish can’t.

Listen to the interview and read the full article on KUOW.

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