Paper Nautilus

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Translated by D.

Despite appearances, the paper nautilus is no evolutionary relic.

In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea , novelist Jules Verne also contributes to the propagation of the misunderstanding of paper nautilus locomotion. A few pages into the second part of the book, there is a scene where the Nautilus—in this case, the name is used for the submarine of the formidable Captain Nemo—travels the waters of the Indian Ocean during late January. It was a shoal of argonauts travelling along on the surface of the ocean.

We could count several hundreds.

Josiah holds nautilus

They belonged to the tubercle kind which are peculiar to the Indian seas. These graceful molluscs moved backwards by means of their locomotive tube, through which they propelled the water already drawn in. Of their eight tentacles, six were elongated, and stretched out floating on the water, whilst the other two, rolled up flat, were spread to the wing like a light sail.

Argonaut (animal) - Wikipedia

I saw their spiral-shaped and fluted shells, which Cuvier justly compares to an elegant skiff. A boat indeed!

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It bears the creature which secretes it without its adhering to it. For nearly an hour the Nautilus floated in the midst of this shoal of molluscs. Then I know not what sudden fright they took. But as if at a signal every sail was furled, the arms folded, the body drawn in, the shells turned over, changing their centre of gravity, and the whole fleet disappeared under the waves. Never did the ships of a squadron manoeuvre with more unity.

But first impressions can be deceiving. The creature that had ensnared my mind is totally different. The argonaut is an octopus, and its prehistoric look is created by the way the squishy creature reproduces.


As she swims, a female argonaut cuddles her eggs in the shell-like cases pressed against her sides. Lacking cases, male argonauts just look like itty-bitty octopuses.

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The flotilla Nguyen spotted off California showcases just one species of paper nautilus. Others swim the open ocean around the world. And while argonauts are not nearly as ancient as the ammonoids they reminded me of, they do have a respectable record—the oldest argonaut egg cases are around 15 million years old. While our ancestors were monkeying around in the trees, paper nautiluses were dipping through the seas.

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