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Fly on the Wall 

February 26, 2010

Tank Makeover

The deep sea is home to numerous strange looking, fascinating creatures that are typically only seen from a high-tech submersible, or perhaps in a television special. Among them, the chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilus) – a “living fossil” species which is largely the same as it was more than 400 million years ago. The Academy is among a handful of institutions to successfully display these intriguing creatures, which prefer total darkness.

By day, the wild chambered nautilus hovers at depths up to 500 meters below the surface, and every night, they make the long trek upward to shallow warmer waters to feed on small fishes, crabs and crustaceans. The nautilus’ shell, a spiraling series of gas-filled chambers, is the key to this daily journey. By altering the levels of gas and water in its chambers, the nautilus can maintain buoyancy, or dive, as needed.

Academy staff recently redesigned the nautiluses’ tank to simulate their natural environment more closely. They now float beneath an other-worldly blue light which suits their desire for darkness, and staff are developing technology that will induce a daily temperature change to simulate the conditions that nautiluses encounter during their migration from deep to shallow waters. On your next visit to the aquarium, you’ll find this window into the deep sea around the corner from the upside down jellies.

Chambered nautilus

Photo by John White

Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 1:44 pm


  1. What a facinating creature. Probably about 20 years or so ago, I remember seeing a beautiful photograph of these creatures mating.It was on a poster (I think) and for sure a postcard at the old aquarium. It was gorgeous, and I’ve always wanted one. Does anyone know if this photo is available anywhere?

    Comment by Shelly — March 15, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

  2. Nice idea to have interesting stories, and really useful for docent s. I find people love stories like this. Thank you!

    Comment by Teresa Middleton — March 15, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  3. Onward and Upward Mr. Farrington C.P.

    Comment by Donald Trask — March 15, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  4. LESS than a minute–and great information. Thanks for this nice benefit for members.

    Comment by Joan Collignon — March 15, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  5. it is outstanding that you are doing your new work with the nautilus I’m a retired h.s. biology teacher and the cephalopods are one of my favorites and exposing the public to the nautilus and it’s environment are great additions to the museum. Keep up the good work.

    Comment by jerry huot — March 15, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

  6. What a neat animal.I’ve been away for much too long. Took some children courses at the aquarium when I was about 10/11 yrs old . and at 74 I still find it fascinating.

    Comment by Don White — March 15, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  7. We were just at the Academy today and found the Nautilus exhibit and loved it … then returned home to find this e-mail waiting for us!! Great timing!

    Comment by Jennifer S — March 15, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

  8. My membership value just went up!! {but please don’t charge me more :-) }

    Comment by Sheldon — March 15, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  9. Dear Greg (aka Chief Penguin),
    That’s a very interesting bit of info. Keep em coming—it adds to our knowledge of what’s at the Academy, tells us where to find it and serves to keep the Calif Acad of Sciences high on our list of places to visit when in SF.
    Thanks a lot.
    Newt Harband

    Comment by Newton Harband — March 15, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

  10. Thank you for this one minute education piece about the Chambered Nautilus. Very interesting and helps to illuminate the exhibits for our next visit! My 8 year old loves this kind of information.

    Comment by Constance — March 15, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

  11. Dear Greg, AFA Chief Penquin…Thanks for the great smile from you……Thanks for all of the hard work and the updates…Carol

    Comment by carol canellos — March 16, 2010 @ 10:20 am

  12. Just the right bait for us to make another visit! Thanks.

    Comment by Connie and Bob Hosemann — March 18, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  13. What a great idea. Quick, intriguing information. Keep these news items coming.

    Comment by Lisa Johnson — March 18, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

  14. I must say I was deeply disappointed when I visited the Cal Academy of Sciences last Saturday (8/6/11) and discovered that the nautilus exhibit was under construction. I was overjoyed when one of my friends mentioned that there were nautiluses at the academy, but I was heartbroken to round the corner with the upside-down jellies only to find the nautilus tank was completely empty. I am an avid cephalopod enthusiast and I have only ever dreamed of seeing a nautilus up close. I hope that the nautiluses in the exhibit are healthy behind the scenes and that they will be reinstalled into their exhibit. I will be eagerly waiting to see them.

    Comment by Rachel — August 9, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  15. Rachel, thanks for your comment. Per our biologist Rich Ross who cares for the Academy’s cephalopods, the nautilus was moved out of the exhibit for health reasons, but will be back on display in the future. Stay tuned for another rarely displayed ceph to go into that tank soon – the broadclub cuttle, Sepia latimanus. I hope you were able to see some of our other cephalopods during your visit – we have flamboyant cuttles, dwarf cuttles, coconut octopus, and giant Pacific octopus on display!

    Comment by Helen — August 11, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

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