Thursday, July 9, 2015

Naut Again

Oh wow, there's some wonderful news that's come out of the US East coast recently that hasn't gotten the coverage it deser....

Courtesy: DarTar via Wikimedia Commmons

Oh, god no, not this again. How many weeks am I going to have to go without getting interrupted by a cephalopod? What do you want chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius), and did you seriously just use your own name as a pun?

"I'll use my name however I want after you and that wannabe 
Greek hero besmirched it. She should be proud to be 
associated with us nautiluses."
Courtesy: Michael Bentley via Flickr

Alright, alright, I didn't mean to offend anyone. I wrote about argonauts last week since they're a cool family in their own right. I guess I didn't think about how little people know about your family too. Tell you what, I'll make this post all about you, if you promise to tell the other cephs to stop interrupting me. I don't want a ram's horn squid butting in next week.

"Alright deal, but I'm gonna stand here and make sure you do us justice"
Courtesy: OCVA via Flickr

Okay well, if we're gonna give this family the credit it deserves we need to talk about world domination. Don't worry, you needn't imagine a future where shelled overlords subjugate earth's other species, because it already happened. Nautiluses are old, very old, in fact their family members are the OG cephalopods. The first nautiluses to appear had straight shells, but around 400 million years ago they developed the familiar spiral we see today. They were so successful that they, and their cousins the ammonites, would go on to dominate the seas for eons. Nautilus even survived the worst extinction of all time which killed 96% of all life in the sea. Not too shabby for an animal that's essentially a fancy snail.

Even though they ruled the oceans for so long, the nautiluses eventually gave up their family's dynasty to live a life of quiet retirement. Today only two genera of nautilus exist, down from the 75 or so at their peak. Modern nautiluses are found only in the Indian and Pacific oceans in the deep waters at the steep edges of coral reefs. Yet they are some of the most fascinating organisms to occupy those spaces.

Of course what stands out most about nautilus is their incredible shells. Nautilus are the only cephalopod left to still have an exterior shell, which means they don't need all the gaudy color and texture changing flashiness of their cousins. Instead of hiding, speeding away, or out-thinking their predators nautilus prefer the simple life scavenging food off the bottom; and cruising through deeper water at times when predators are at rest.

They're kind of like that friend from college who moves to
 Idaho and starts a goat farm because "It's just easier."
Courtesy: Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons

Now you might notice that the nautilus' shell is pretty burly. There are hardly any animals with shells that thick that even bother swimming. Other heavily shelled mollusks like clams and snails spend most of their time on or in the ground. So what does the nautilus do that makes it able to hover up in the water like that? Are they just incredibly strong? Not really. When you watch a nautilus puff along by forcing water through its siphon, it kind of makes you want to hand it an inhaler and tell it to go sit on the bleachers. So if it's not pure herculean strength that keeps the nautilus afloat what is it? Well my friends, the nautilus succeeds thanks to the magic of good engineering.

I think like a third of our readers just found their spirit animal
Courtesy: Jason Westley Upton via Flickr

Inside the shell are the structures that put the "chambered" in chambered nautilus. The largest chamber is where the nautilus' mantle is housed, but the others are empty of everything except air and a little bit of water. When a new chamber forms the nautilus walls its previous space off and amazingly, drains the water. See if the chambers stayed filled then the nautilus would get dragged to the bottom thanks to the weight of the water inside the shell. Emptying water from the chambers has the same effect as if the nautilus were to tie balloons to its shell. The air inside pushes up towards the surface while the weight of the shell pulls down, and the two forces balance one another out to make the nautilus neither sink nor float.

You might be wondering: If the nautilus seals the chambers how does it get the water out? Well running through the chambers is a really cool organ with a really cool name, a siphuncle (pronounced: sigh-fun-kull). The siphuncle is a tube that uses water's own physical properties to fill and empty the chambers. See water has a tendency to try and balance the concentrations of different minerals dissolved in itself. So if you put a screen that will only let water through between two solutions and you make one much saltier than the other; the water will cross the screen to the salty side until the two sides' ratios of salt to water are equal. This is exactly what the siphuncle does. When the nautilus wants to remove water from the chambers it adds salt ions to the outer layer of the siphuncle and the water just seeps on out of the chamber. When the nautilus wants to add water to the chambers it does the opposite. This system requires basically no energy on the animal's part, so it's a great strategy for staying properly buoyant.

Who says functional machines can't be pretty? Those little struts in the center 
of each chamber hold the siphuncle in place as it runs through the shell.
Courtesy: Jitze Couperus via Flickr

Of course everyone focuses on the shell of the nautilus, so much so that these animals are being impacted by fisher people catching them for their shells. Many scientists and citizens who care a lot about nautilus are doing everything they can to show the international community that nautilus, not only deserve, but need our protection. The easiest way to do your part is to never buy new nautilus shells. Instead look around antique stores, or purchase nautilus fossils, which have the benefit of being infused with beautiful minerals from fossilization.

Aside from their shells, nautilus are also impressive thanks to over 90 tentacles! These tentacles are much simpler than the complex arms of the nautilus' cousins. They have no suckers and instead use a series of grooves to grip surfaces. They're also incredibly sensitive to scent/taste. As a scavenger nautiluses need to be very aware of where food is sitting, and all of those tentacles act like an array of antennas picking up the fishy signal of food rotting on the bottom.

Okay nautilus, was that a satisfying amount of information for you? We can always come back another week and learn more.

"Well that was better than naut. It'll do for now, and naut to worry,
you've naut seen the last of me."
Courtesy: David Remsen via Flickr

Ugh, the puns man, the puns...


Dunstan, A., Ward, P., & Marshall, N., "Vertical Distribution and Migration Patterns of Nautilus pompilius", PLoS ONE 6(2): 16311, Feb. 2011.
Accessed via:

Ward, Peter, "Cameral Liquid in Nautilus and Ammonites", Paleobiology, 5(1), 1979, pg. 40-49.
Accessed via:

Crook, R., & Basil, J., "A Biphasic Memory Curve in the Chambered Nautilus, Nautilus pompilius L. (Cephalopoda: Nautiloidea)", Journal of Experimental Biology, June 15th 2008.
Accessed via:

Dunstan et al., "Nautilus pompilius Life History and Demographics at the Osprey Reef Seamount, Coral Sea, Australia" PLoS ONE, 6(2): e16312, Feb. 2011.
Accessed via: