Thursday, February 24, 2011

Zoologger: Jet-propelled living fossil with a problem - environment - 17 February 2011 - New Scientist

Zoologger: Jet-propelled living fossil with a problem - environment - 17 February 2011 - New Scientist


Take a night-time dive over a coral reef in the Philippines and you may well see a nautilus or two. Looking like a cross between an octopus and a snail, it fixes you with its pale white eyes before jetting backwards through the water, wobbling gently with the currents.

Its movement is ungainly and slow, but it has survived virtually unchanged for at least 450 million years, so it must be doing something right. Its relatives the ammonoids dominated the oceans for millions of years before going extinct along with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – but the nautilus came through that disaster and is still with us today.

For now, anyway. Recent findings confirm something long suspected: nautiluses reproduce very slowly, so they are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. In the Philippines, they are already in decline.
Shiny shell

Nautiluses do not make good eating – you have to boil them for hours – but their shells are highly prized.

When the animals first gained those shells way back in the Cambrian, some 550 million years ago, it was a nifty new trick. The early nautiloids used it to trap layers of air, which allowed them to stay at one depth without expending any effort. Nautiluses also have muscles attached to the shell, which squeeze water out in a jet that propels the animal along.

Such jet power is a cumbersome way of getting around the seas, and most modern cephalopods have largely abandoned it. Despite its primitive way of getting around, however, the nautilus is no mental slouch.

They have a simple form of memory, despite having much simpler brains than other cephalopods. In a 2008 studyMovie Camera, nautiluses were able to learn that a blue light meant food was about to be delivered. Since then it has emerged that nautiluses can learn how to solve 3D mazes and remember them for at least two weeks, as well as use objects as landmarks to help them find their way.

Nautiluses mostly scavenge for dead crustaceans, worms and starfish, often digging for them in mud and biting into them with their sharp beaks. They hunt mostly by smell, tracking odours from up to 10 metres away. Their eyes do not have lenses, and instead work just like pinhole cameras. As a result, their vision is decidedly blurry. It may well be of little use to them, as they hide in the depths during the day and hunt by night.

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