SEATTLE — A 90-tentacled species of nautilus never before seen by modern biologists was put on display at the Seattle Aquarium after its recent capture by a University of Washington scientist in the South Pacific.
Dr. Peter Ward, a paleontologist at the college, said that the nautilus, a relative of the octopus, squid and cuttlefish, dates back 500 million years, when its ancestors, the ammonites, were the dominant residents of temperate and tropical oceans.
Then, apparently all but the largest ones were wiped out at the same time that dinosaurs suddenly disappeared from the Earth.
Ward captured five nautiluses in December off the island of Vanuatu, New Hebrides, located about 850 miles northeast of Australia, where they have long been known to exist but have not been seen for more than 150 years. Three of the five were put on display Thursday.
Live in Radial Shell
The free-swimming cephalopods--"head-footed" animals--measuring about seven inches across live in a many-chambered radial shell marked by prominent, reddish-brown axial stripes on a highly polished cream background.
Large and prominent eyes are slightly covered by a heavily constructed fleshy flap that can be used to close the opening of the shell and protect the creature's 90 separate tentacles.
The only recorded sighting of this particular species was in 1832, when a sailor aboard an English man-of-war scooped one out of the water and preserved it by placing it in alcohol, Ward said. It was taken back to Britain, where English anatomist Richard Owen studied its structure.
Since then, politics and the cagey habits of the creature have kept it out of scientists' scrutiny.
Ward said the government of Vanuatu, upset by nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific and the free-wheeling practices of U.S. tuna boats, has prohibited all American scientific studies there.
Gets Call From Blue
"I tried to get in for over a year," he said. "Then, out of the blue, they said, 'Come on in.' "
Catching the nautilus can be tricky because it avoids the light of day by propelling itself--through the use of a water propulsion siphon that can be extended and pointed in any direction--to depths of up to 1,800 feet.
At night, it returns to the surface, traveling at speeds of up almost a foot per second, to feed on a variety of crustaceans, including crab, shrimp and lobster.
Ward caught the three nautiluses that are now on display at the aquarium with traps set at 1,000 feet underwater. He caught two more, which he froze for biological study, on a night scuba dive near the ocean surface.
Long Hunted for Shells
About a half-dozen well-known species of nautilus have long been hunted for their shells off Vanuatu, New Caledonia and the Philippines, but this hunting has reduced their numbers drastically, Ward said.
Ward, who has published a scholarly description of his studies and plans to have a more general book titled "In Search of Nautilus" published by Simon & Schuster in the spring, is thinking of naming the new species Nautilus vanuatuensis after the island near where he found it.