Two Sixth Graders Spearhead Nationwide Effort to Save an Endangered Sea Creature

This 'living fossil' is being wiped out of existence because its colorful shells are prized as earrings.

The shell of the chambered nautilus is often turned into jewelry, a practice that's wiping out the 500-million-year-old sea dweller. (Photo: Aqua.com)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

The name “chambered nautilus” hardly sounds evocative of the ornate and lustrous design of this coveted sea dweller. But despite its clinical moniker, this particular type of mollusk is so prized for its natural beauty, it’s on the verge of extinction because jewelry makers have fished it almost to death.

In response to the nautilus’ dwindling population, two unlikely heroes have emerged who are fighting to save the species from certain demise. The surprising part is that neither is old enough to be called a teenager...and both of them read The New York Times.

Meet 12-year-old Josiah Utsch and his friend, 11-year-old Ridgely Kelly. A year ago, the pair read a Times article about the endangered nautilus. Angered that this 500-million-year-old creature was being wiped off the planet for the sake of making jewelry, the pair decided to wage a campaign to stop nautilus fishing and buying. Utsch and Kelly started their own website, savethenautilus.com, and through it, have so far raised $10,000.

In his interview with the Portland Press Herald, Josiah Utsch said, "It would be a tragedy [for the nautilus] to survive a ton of mass extinctions and have them wiped out by a human mass extinction."

MORE: Ringed and Bearded Seals Join the Threatened Species List

Make no mistake: The nautilus is far more than your average bottom-dweller. Aside from its marked beauty, the creature is a living fossil; its existence can be traced back half a billion years, and during that time, it's experienced little evolutionary change because it lives in a fairly fixed deep-water environment.

Or it had, until we started fishing it by the millions. And because the sea dweller takes up to 15 years to reach maturity, the species is particularly vulnerable to overfishing, so much so that some researchers fear it may not recover.

But in areas of the Pacific Ocean, it’s commerce, not conservation, that rules the seas. Small nautilus shells caught off the coast of Australia or Asia are often turned into earrings that retail for roughly $20. The mollusk’s luminescent inner shell is also often ground into little stones and sold as fake pearls, sometimes referred to as "Osmena Pearls."

While large animal poaching gets most of the splashier press coverage, the once-plentiful mollusk has been battling extinction without much fanfare—until now. Utsch and Kelly report that most of the $10,000 they’ve raised on savethenautilus.com has come from other children who are sending in whatever they’ve collected on their own.

Since its inception, the boys’ campaign has become an official nonprofit organization under the umbrella of the University of Washington. And that’s where the proceeds are going. Dr. Peter Ward, a renowned paleontologist at the university, will use the money for further research to more clearly define the remaining population numbers and determine a sustainable catch. Ward is also trying to enter the nautilus as an official endangered species, as well as having their shells officially recognized as contraband, much like rhino horns or elephant tusks.

The boys will join Ward this February on a boat trip to Samoa, where they’ll help research their favorite sea animals firsthand.

What do you think should happen to the businesses that still sell nautilus shells as jewelry? Let us know in the Comments.

Comments ()