By Micheal Franco
Is this the rarest creature on Earth? Peter Ward
What are the chances of finding a super-rare creature in the wild twice in your life — 30 years apart? If you’re biologist Peter Ward, they’re surprisingly good.
Ward is a biologist at the University of Washington who this July came across the Allonautilus scrobiculatus species of nautilus in the waters off Papua New Guinea after not having seen one for about three decades. (That’s just about the time Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” was a hit on the radio for those Casey Casem fans out there.)
Nautiluses are often called “living fossils” — not really something you hope to be when you’re a human, but when you’re an underwater sea creature, the term is something of an honor. The creature, a type of shellfish related to squid, octopus and cuttlefish, holds this distinction because it’s been around on planet Earth for about 500 million years. That’s long enough to have become embedded in rock and have its “spiral staircase” shell pattern become part of the fossil record.
As part of a project to survey nautilus populations, Ward and a team of researchers baited a stick with fish and chicken meat, suspended it between 500 and 1,300 feet (152 and 396 meters) below the surface of the water and filmed the activity. Eventually, Allonautilus showed up along with another nautilus and began feasting on the scraps, even while getting batted with the tail of a hungry sunfish that came around as well.