Logarithmic spiral shells are often seen on necklaces, used for display, or even as decorative cups. The shell of the nautilus has a naturally perfect design, 500 million years in the making, which makes them a hot commodity.
For 12-year-old summertime resident of Bigfork, Josiah Utsch, the shell’s high demand means a call to action to save the nautilus from extinction. Last October, Utsch first learned that the species is facing extinction, but there was no organization for him to donate to that would help fund the research necessary to have the nautilus listed with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. CITES is the group that prevents the marketing of things such as rhino horns or elephant tusks.
“I am a lover of strange and awesome animals and I’ve always loved the nautilus,” Utsch said as he explained how this ancient species’ shell has been coveted worldwide for many years. “It has a round shell and has been known for its amazing beauty all across the world, the Medici in Florence used it for cups.”
Utsch contacted University of Washington paleontologist and expert on the nautilus, Professor Peter Ward, to find out how he could help. Utsch then teamed up with his 11-year-old friend from back home in Maine, Ridgely Kelly, to form the nonprofit organization, savethenautilus.com, to fund Ward’s research to gather the necessary evidence to have the nautilus protected under CITES.
“One of the big things that is a real problem for the nautilus is it takes 15 years to reach reproducing age,” Utsch said. “So it is going to be a long time if it gets eradicated to get it back, so we’re trying to get it onto CITES as soon as possible because the longer we wait, the longer it is going to take to get it back to its old population status.”
According to Utsch, Australia is one of the few locations where the nautilus is thriving thanks to their strict animal protection laws. In Australia, Ward and his team of volunteer researchers could find 100 nautiluses in 60 hours, but in the Philippines they only found five.
“He started this website to raise awareness because most people are like ‘who or what is a nautilus,’ and then they buy the jewelry and not know where it is from,” Utsch’s mom, Elise Strong, said.
Shortly after the website launched, Utsch was featured on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in December and then Time For Kids magazine in January. Utsch was also asked to speak in Washington D.C. with the fish and game department but was unable to due to a family trip.
“We got a lot more people to know about the nautilus now that we had the article from Time for Kids and MPBN,” Utsch said.
Since Time for Kids is a classroom magazine distributed across the country, the article about Utsch, savethenautilus.com, his message about the importance of not buying products made from their shells and how to help the species reached a surprisingly large audience. Strong estimates they’ve received over 500 emails from classrooms and individual students wanting to help.
As of last week, savethe nautilus.com is over halfway to their goal of $10-12,000 with $6,500 raised so far. All of the proceeds raised will go toward transportation costs and supplies for Ward’s next research trip with a team of volunteers.
“It’s been cool to see kids get inspired and that they care,” Strong said. “To have kids hear about this and want to do something and then do something every step of the way is cool.”