Man Blamed for Living Fossil Extinction Threat
The chambered nautilus is on the decline, after 500 million years of survival from the world’s greatest extinction events. Guess who’s to blame.
At the Philadelphia Inquirer, Faye Flam wrote about the nautilus, a “living fossil” that has survived all that planet Earth could throw at it for 500 million years. It survived the Permian Extinction that wiped out 90% of species on Earth, and the fabled K-T extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. But now, its days are numbered, and humans are to blame. Presumably, it’s because hunting of the prized shells caught them by surprise:
So as hardy as these creatures have proven over hundreds of millions of years, a new fitness factor is becoming increasingly important – the ability to coexist with 7 billion human beings. There’s nothing the nautilus can do to adapt to the threat from humans – it came on too suddenly. The future of these animals depends not on what they do, but on what we do.
The story of the nautiloids helps illustrate the role of chance in evolution. Extinction doesn’t reflect some kind of flaw or weakness or inability to adapt. The term “fitness” as scientists use it depends on the environment — don’t think of workout-hardened athletes but of individuals that fit well into their surroundings. And on this planet, the surroundings are always subject to change.
Undoubtedly Faye Flam confidently expected to hit a grand slam as a pinch hitter for Darwin, but count the strikes: (1) Cambrian explosion, (2) living fossils, (3) Stuff Happens. She’s out, but mercifully we’ll give her one more pitch. Tell us, Ms Flam, does the nautilus look like a product of random mutation?
The spiral shells are divided into chambers, the biggest outermost one providing a home for the creatures and the empty ones providing an adjustable buoyancy system that allows the nautilus to move up and down after food. Not only is the nautilus a member of an ancient lineage, but individual creatures are long-lived. They may live upwards of 100 years… When it comes to smell, “they are like wolves, picking up an unbelievably small number of molecules,” [Peter] Ward said.
Nice try. Game over. (The Darwin team’s manager is heard yelling, “Whose side are you on, anyway?”)