DMPS teachers are superheroes by day, but many also have very active interests outside of the classroom. Dr. Gregory Barord, who instructs the Central Campus Marine Sciences program, is also a noted marine biologist in the Nautilus conservation community. In addition to helping high school students find their passion for studying marine life, Dr. Barord – and his team – made their own find that is generating news in the scientific community. They uncovered three new species of nautiluses. Dr. Barord shares an update from the classroom and the ocean in his guest DMPS blog post.

Three new species of nautilus.Nine years ago, I moved to Des Moines from Brooklyn, New York where I had been working towards my doctoral dissertation studying the biology, behavior, and conservation of chambered nautiluses. As I was completing my final year of graduate school, I accepted the position at Central Campus to reimagine the well-known, Marine Biology program. I was not sure what to expect in Iowa or how to balance my final year of grad school with my 1st year of teaching… The only thing that I really knew was that I wanted to bring the scientific process into action, not simply talk about it, and I wanted to do this using the nautilus as a model organism on how to approach science, education, and conservation in general.

Since then, our Central Campus team has updated our quarantine systems, created the Central Campus Oceans Week, set up two, 1,000-gallon large aquariums, planned out each aquarium for a specific theme, started culturing cuttlefish and octopus, installed new water quality and life support systems, and on and on. At the same time, our Save the Nautilus team has continued our work to uncover the Secret Life of Nautiluses using underwater video cameras to survey populations around the Pacific, convening with governmental officials for management planning, and sharing this work at different conferences and events all around the world.

Recently, our team discovered three new species of nautiluses, Nautilus vitiensis, (Fiji), Nautilus samoaensis (American Samoa), and Nautilus vanuatuensis (Vanuatu) in this publication. These nautiluses inhabit the easternmost range of nautiluses in the Pacific Ocean and were all previously grouped under the species, Nautilus pompilius. Now, what do these new species descriptions mean to the evolution of nautiluses, nautilus conservation, and the marine biology program here in Iowa?

The nautiloid lineage extends far back in the fossil record, to over 500 million years! Then, nautiloids were abundant and diverse throughout the oceans as evident by the many, many, many fossils found across the world. Today, nautiloids are only found in the Indo-Pacific, inhabiting deep-reef slopes. Extant (living) nautiluses are isolated from other populations by deep-water (their shell implodes below 800 meters), warm surface water temperatures (temperatures above 27 °C are lethal), and a general nektobenthic behavior of nautiluses to remain close to the ocean floor. The isolated populations rarely interbreed, if ever, and over time, adapt and evolve to their local resources and habitats, which may result in speciation events. This process of adaptive radiation is one of the core components of natural selection and something that Charles Darwin described when he observed finches in the Galapagos Islands. By continuing to examine the processes driving nautilus evolution today, we gain a better understanding of how nautiluses evolved in the past and what factors were more or less important to their survival.

From a conservation perspective, the description of these three new species provides further evidence and justification for conservation regulations and management tools to protect nautilus populations. These populations are morphologically and genetically distinct from other populations – if they disappear, their unique genetic fingerprint will be lost forever. In 2017, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) included all nautiluses (Family Nautilidae) under Appendix II, requiring an export permit to accompany all trade of nautiluses. This designation was important as it protected all nautiluses at the family level, as opposed to specific species which were, and are, changing. The United States listed Nautilus pompilius as a threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act in 2018. Both listings resulted from decades of unregulated fishing and population decline that was recently quantified with scientific data. While the primary threat to nautilus populations has been unregulated fishing, and still is, questions remain about the impact of other factors such as sedimentation, eutrophication, ocean acidification, and global warming. How might these factors affect nautiluses, their habitat, and the humans living on the coast in these regions?

To address those questions, we circle back to my classroom here in Des Moines. Whether we want to save the nautilus or save the whole ocean, it starts with creativity and of course, the nautilus. My students are introduced to the nautilus on day 1, learn about the process of marine conservation from a terrific documentary during the 1st month, and memorize their first scientific name, Nautilus pompilius. Now that they are hooked on nautiluses, we move on to other things.

Rather than only talking about coastal erosion and global warming, chairs (coastline) slowly disappear from the classroom (island nation) and the desks (villages) are all moved around until we start taking notes on a similar thing happening to an island in Papua New Guinea and slowly, sometimes quickly, connections start being made between something as innocuous as a chair disappearing versus someone’s actual home on the other side of the world. Then, we have some “fun” and get in groups to see which group can keep kicking balloons in the air without them hitting the ground, as the number of balloons goes from one to twenty… Every group fails and as we look more closely at the balloons, the issues facing the ocean – overfishing, coastal erosion, plastic pollution, etc. – are written on different balloons. It is simply to hard, maybe impossible, for one person or one group to try and keep track of and solve all the problems themselves. Finally, each group focuses on one of these issues and thinks up a novel solution to address the issue, using crayons, markers, glue, etc. More laws or more recycling are not acceptable solutions. We have been doing that for decades and y’all can see the results, or lack thereof…

Some solutions this year were (1) destroying entire habitats to deal with invasive species and repopulating the habitats with natural species, (2) genetically modifying to fish to be too spicy for people to address over-fishing, and (3) ultrasonic irradiation to alleviate eutrophication.

Now, is it likely that there will be spicy, genetically modified fish swimming in the ocean in the next few decades? Probably not. But it is possible that the discussion around these new ideas, leads to more effective solutions that actually address the problem in a new way! Too often, we view science as a simple set of steps to answer a question and while that is true, we lose sight of the creative process that underpins the entire scientific method. That creativity leads to wonder which leads to more questions. As you begin asking more questions you find out that other folks have similar questions and you team up to address those questions, and develop more and more questions, connect with more and more folks, and on and on… Eventually, you have the whole world working together to address the questions to save the world.

That is exactly how our team came together to describe these three new species of nautiluses. It is exciting to be able to share these findings with the world, but maybe even more exciting to model the scientific process with my students to show them what our science actually looks like from the initial questions to the data collection, publication, and outreach. Now, we move on to the next questions to continue learning more and more about the most mysterious, well-known animal in the oceans, the chambered nautilus.

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