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We need creatures that challenge our imagination. Sea horses and
dragons and blue-footed boobies; unicorns and Yeti and the Loch Ness
Monster; giant squid and puffer fish and paper nautiluses.
When science and whimsy meet, some sacred harmony is struck, just haunting enough to plant a doubt about what’s real, or pique a curiosity about what’s possible. Notes of humility and excitement find voice between the solid brass of biology and the flighty strings of cryptozoology (the study of creatures that may or may not exist).
One May, celebrating the end of the Baja tour season, the whole company had a picnic with our families on a crescent white sand beach on Coronados Island outside Loreto, Mexico. It was the kids of course, who found the unicorn of sea creatures in a shallow depression in the sand, still alive in its shell, but losing water to the falling tide.
As whimsical as a paper nautilus may sound, Argonauta cornuta definitely exists. They brought it to me in a bowl of water, and it suctioned itself to my finger. This was the first live paper nautilus that most of the other guides had ever seen in our combined 85 years of combing these beaches and snorkeling these waters. In my 20 years here, I’ve seen a few dozen empty shells, but only 2 live specimens.
Such a close encounter of the wild kind as we had at the company picnic on Coronados Island leaves me feeling a little special and deeply grateful to have had that experience. Learning more about the argonaut / paper nautilus has impressed me all over again just how ancient are some life forms (I really can’t wrap my head around 500 million years!), how recently we’ve come to the party, and how varied are the experiences of life.
A live paper nautilus, or argonaut, is so rare to see that the field guidebook we used for years in Baja only had a picture of the empty shell. It’s a single-chambered white to opaque crescent with black markings. Because it does seem fantastic that a kind of octopus swims around wearing a fragile curved hat, I’ve had clients insist I was completely making them up.
I wasn’t making this up. A few mass extinctions ago, the earth belonged to the ancestors of the paper nautilus–cephalopods, a group of agile, adaptable, expressive mollusks. It was a time before mammals, before dinosaurs, and even before land plants. Five hundred million years later, and much reduced in species variety, the cephalopod clan is still represented by octopi, squid, cuttlefish, chambered nautiluses, and paper nautiluses. They all have suctioned appendages and remarkable adaptations for predation, locomotion, disguise, and communication. These intelligent invertebrates also exhibit complex learning behavior. After all these years, there is still much to learn about them.