The Sailing Of The Nautilus

One of the prettiest fables of the sea is that relating to the Paper Nautilus, the constructor and inhabitant of the delicate and beautiful shell which looks as if it were made of ivory no thicker than a sheet of writing paper.


It is an old belief that in calm weather it rises from the bottom of the sea, and, elevating its two broadly-expanded arms, spreads to the gentle air, as a sail, the membrane, light as a spider's web, by which they are united; and that, seated in its boat-like shell, it thus floats over the smooth surface of the ocean, steering and paddling with its other arms. Should storm arise or danger threaten, its masts and sail are lowered, its oars laid in, and the frail craft, filling with water, sinks gently beneath the waves.

When and where this picturesque idea originated I am unable to discover. It dates far back beyond the range of history; for Aristotle mentions it, and, unfortunately, sanctioned it. With the weight of his honoured name in its favour, this fallacy has maintained its place in popular belief, even to our own times; for the mantle of the great father of natural history, who was generally so marvellously correct, fell on none of his successors; Pliny, and Ælian, and the tribe of compilers who succeeded them, having been more concerned to make their histories sensational than to verify their statements.

Naturally, the Paper Nautilus has been the subject of many a poet's verses. Oppian wrote of it in his 'Halieutics':—

"Sail-fish in secret, silent deeps reside,  In shape and nature to the preke  Fill the void space, and with the rushing weight,  Force down th' inconstants to their former seat.  When, first arrived, they feel the stronger blast,  They lie supine and skim the liquid waste.  The natural barks out-do all human art  When skilful floaters play the sailor's part.  Two feet they upward raise, and steady keep;  These are the masts and rigging of the ship:  A membrane stretch'd between supplies the sail,  Bends from the masts, and swells before the gale.  Two other feet hang paddling on each side,  And serve for oars to row and helm to guide.  'Tis thus they sail, pleased with the wanton game,  The fish, the sailor, and the ship, the same.  But when the swimmers dread some dangers near  The sportive pleasure yields to stronger fear.  No more they, wanton, drive before the blasts,  But strike the sails, and bring down all the masts;  The rolling waves their sinking shells o'erflow,  And dash them down again to sands below."

Montgomery also thus exquisitely paraphrases the same idea in his 'Pelican Island':—

"Light as a flake of foam upon the wind,  Keel upwards, from the deep emerged a shell,  Shaped like the moon ere half her orb is filled.  Fraught with young life, it righted as it rose,  And moved at will along the yielding water.  The native pilot of this little bark  Put out a tier of oars on either side,  Spread to the wafting breeze a twofold sail,  And mounted up, and glided down, the billows  In happy freedom, pleased to feel the air,  And wander in the luxury of light."

Byron mentions the Nautilus in his 'Mutiny of the Bounty' as follows:—

"The tender Nautilus, who steers his prow,  The sea-born sailor of his shell canoe,  The ocean Mab—the fairy of the sea,  Seems far less fragile, and alas! more free.  He, when the lightning-winged tornadoes sweep  The surge, is safe: his port is in the deep;  And triumphs o'er the armadas of mankind  Which shake the world, yet crumble in the wind."

The very names by which this animal is known to the science which some persons erroneously think must be so hard and dry are poetic. In Aristotle's day it was called the Nautilus or Nauticus, "the mariner," and though two thousand two hundred years have passed since the great master wrote, the name still clings to it. As the Pearly Nautilus, a very different animal, also bears that name, Gualtieri perceived the necessity of distinguishing the Paper Nautilus from it, and was followed by Linnæus, who therefore entitled the genus to which the latter belongs, Argonauta, after the ship Argo, in which Jason and his companions sailed to Colchis to carry off the "Golden Fleece" suspended there in the temple of Mars, and guarded by brazen-hoofed bulls, whose nostrils breathed out fire and death, and by a watchful dragon that never slept. According to the Greek legend, the Argo was named after its builder Argus, the son of Danaus, and was the first ship that ever was built. Oppian ('Halieutics,' book I.) expresses his opinion that the Nautilus served as a model for the man who first conceived the idea of constructing a ship, and embarking on the waters:—

"Ye Powers! when man first felled the stately trees,  And passed to distant shores on wafting seas,  Whether some god inspired the wondrous thought,  Or chance found out, or careful study sought;  If humble guess may probably divine,  And trace th' improvement to the first design,  Some wight of prying search, who wond'ring stood  When softer gales had smoothed the dimpled flood,  Observed these careless swimmers floating move,  And how each blast the easy sailor drove;  Hence took the hint, hence formed th' imperfect draught,  And ship-like fish the future seaman taught.  Then mortals tried the shelving hull to slope,  To raise the mast, and twist the stronger rope,  To fix the yards, let fly the crowded sails,  Sweep through the curling waves, and court auspicious gales."

Pope, too, in his 'Essay on Man' (Ep. 3), adopted the idea in his exhortation—

"Learn of the little Nautilus to sail,  Spread the thin oar, and catch the driving gale."

Poetry, like the wizard's spell, can make

"A nutshell seem a gilded barge,  A sheeling seem a palace large,"

but the equally enchanting wand of science is able by a touch to dispel the illusion, and cause the object to appear in its true proportions. So with the fiction of the "Paper Sailor."

I have elsewhere described the affinities of the Nautili and their place in nature, therefore it will only be necessary for me here to allude to these very briefly, to explain the great and essential difference that exists between the two kinds of Nautilus which are popularly regarded as being one and the same animal.

The Pearly Nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) and the Argonaut, which from having a fragile shell of somewhat similar external form is called the Paper Nautilus, both belong to that great primary group of animals known as the Mollusca, and to the class of it called the Cephalopoda, from their having their head in the middle of that which is the foot in other mollusks. In the Cephalopoda the foot is split or divided into eight segments in some families, and in others into ten segments, which radiate from the central head, like so many rays. These rays are not only used as feet, but, being highly flexible, are adapted for employment also as prehensile arms, with which their owner captures its prey, and they are rendered more perfect for this purpose by being furnished with suckers which hold firmly to any surface to which they are applied. The Cephalopods which have the foot divided into ten of these segments or arms are called the Decapoda, those which have only eight of them are called the Octopoda. All of these have two plume-like gills—one on each side—and so are called Dibranchiata; and in the eight-armed section of these is the argonaut or Paper Nautilus. Of the Pearly Nautilus and the four-gilled order I shall have more to say by-and-by: at present we will follow the history of the argonaut.


Notwithstanding all that has been written of it, it is only within the last fifty years that this has been correctly understood. An eight-armed cuttle was recognised and named Ocythoe, which, instead of having, like the common octopus, all of its eight arms thong-like and tapering to a point, had the two dorsal limbs flattened into a broad thin membrane. Although this animal was sometimes seen dead without any covering, it was generally found contained in a thin and slightly elastic univalve shell of graceful form, and bearing some resemblance to an elegantly shaped boat. It did not penetrate to the bottom of this shell; it was not attached to it by any muscular ligament, nor was the shell moulded on its body, nor apparently made to fit it. Hence it was long regarded as doubtful, and even by naturalists so recent and eminent as Dumeril and De Blainville, whether: "Mutianus reports that he saw in the Propontis a shell formed like a little ship, having the poop turned up and the prow pointed. An animal called the Nauplius, resembling an octopus, was enclosed in the shell with its owner, for its amusement in the following manner. When the sea is calm the guest lowers his arms, and uses them as oars and a helm, whilst the owner of the shell expands himself to catch the wind; so that one has the pleasure of carrying and sailing, and the other of steering. Thus, these two otherwise senseless animals take their pleasure together; but the meeting them sailing in their shell is a bad omen for mariners, and foretells some great calamity."

Although the animal was never found in any other shell, and the shell was never known to contain any other animal, and though, when the shell and the animal were found together they were always of proportionate size, this octopod, as I have said, was looked upon by some conchologists as a pirate who had taken possession of a ship which did not belong to him, until Madame Jeannette Power, a French lady then residing in Messina, having succeeded in keeping alive for a time an argonaut the shell of which had been broken in its capture, discovered that the animal quickly repaired the fracture, and reproduced the portions that had been broken off. Induced by this to make further experiments, she kept a number of living argonauts in cages sunk in the sea near the citadel of Messina, and in 1836 laid before the "Academy" at Catania the following results of her observations of them:—

1st. That the argonaut constructs the shell which it inhabits.

2nd. That it quits the egg entirely naked, and forms the shell after its birth.

3rd. That it can repair its shell, if necessary, by a fresh deposit of material having the same chemical composition as its original shell.

4th. That this material is secreted by the palmate, or sail, arms, and is laid on the outside of the shell, to the exterior of which these membranous arms are closely applied.

Madame Power was mistaken on two points. Firstly, the construction of the shell does not commence after the birth of the animal, but, as has been shown by M. Duvernoy, its rudimentary form is distinctly visible by the aid of the microscope in the embryo, whilst still in the egg; and secondly, she continued to believe in the use of the membranous arms as sails, and of the others as oars. This fallacy was exploded by Captain Sander Rang, an officer of the French navy, and "port-captain" at Algiers, who carefully followed up Madame Power's experiments, and confirmed the more important of them. Thus were set at rest questions which for centuries had divided the opinions of zoologists.

The "Paper Nautilus" is, in fact, a female octopod provided with a portable nest, in which to carry about and protect her eggs, instead of brooding over them in some cranny of a rock, or within the recesses of a pile of shells, as does her cousin the octopus. From the membranes of the two flattened and expanded arms she secretes and, if necessary, repairs her shell, and by applying them closely to its outer surface on each side, holds herself within it, for it is not fastened to her body by any attaching muscles. When disturbed or in danger she can loosen her hold, and, leaving her cradle, swim away independently of it. It has been said that, having once left it, she has not the ability nor perhaps the sagacity to re-enter her nest, and resume the guardianship of her eggs. From my own observations of the breeding habits of other octopods I think this most improbable. The use and purpose of the shell of the argonaut will be better understood if I briefly describe what I have witnessed of the treatment of its eggs by its near relative, the octopus.

"The eggs of the octopus," as I have elsewhere said, "when first laid, are small, oval, translucent granules, resembling little grains of rice, not quite an eighth of an inch long. They grow along and around a common stalk, to which every egg is separately attached, as grapes form part of a bunch. Each of the elongated bunches is affixed by a glutinous secretion to the surface of a rock or stone (never to seaweed, as has been erroneously stated), and hangs pendent by its stalk in a long white cluster, like a magnified catkin of the filbert, or, to use Aristotle's simile, like the fruit of the white alder. The length and number of these bunches varies according to the size and condition of

It has been suggested that the syringing may be for the purpose of keeping the water surrounding the eggs well aerated; but this is evidently erroneous, for the water ejected from the tube has been previously deprived of its oxygen, and consequently of its health-giving properties, whilst passing over the gills of the parent. Week after week, for fifty days, a brooding octopus will continue to attend to her eggs with the most watchful and assiduous care, seldom leaving them for an instant except to take food, which, without a brief abandonment of her position, would be beyond her reach. Aristotle asserted that while the female is incubating she takes no food. This is incorrect; but in every case of the kind that has come under my observation the mother octopod, whenever she has been obliged to leave her nest, has returned to it as quickly as possible; and so I believe can, and does, the female argonaut to her shell, and that, too, without any difficulty. In her case the numerous clusters of eggs are all united at their origin to one slender and tapering stalk which is fixed by a spot of glutinous matter to the body-whorl of the spiral shell.


This "paper-sailor," then, whom the poets have regarded as endowed with so much grace and beauty, and living in luxurious ease, is but a fine lady octopus after all. Turn her out of her handsome residence, and, instead of the fairy skimmer of the seas, you have before you an object apparently as free from loveliness and romance as her sprawling, uncanny-looking, relative. Instead of floating in her pleasure boat over the surface of the sea, the argonaut ordinarily crawls along the bottom, carrying her shell above her, keel uppermost; and the broad extremities of the two arms are not hoisted as sails, nor allowed when at rest to dangle over the side of the "boat;" but are used as a kind of hood by which the animal retains the shell in its proper position, as a man bearing a load on his shoulders holds it with his hands. When she comes to the surface, or progresses by swimming instead of walking, she does so in the same manner as the octopus: namely, by the forcible expulsion of water from her funnel-like tube.

But if truth compels us to deprive her of the counterfeit halo conferred on her by poets, we can award her, on behalf of science, a far nobler crown; namely, that of the Queen of the whole great Invertebrate Animal Kingdom. For, the Cephalopoda, of which the argonaut is a highly organised member, are not only the highest in their own division, the Mollusca, but they are as far superior to all other animals which have no backbones, as man stands lord and king over all created beings that possess them.


FIG. 31.—SHELL OF THE PAPER NAUTILUS (Argonauta argo).

Although in outward shape the spiral shell of the Pearly Nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) somewhat resembles that of the argonaut, its internal structure is very different. A section of it shows that it is divided into several chambers, each of which is partitioned off from the adjoining ones, the last formed or external one, in which the animal lives, being much larger than the rest. The object and mode of construction of these chambers is as follows. As the animal grows, a constant secretion of new material takes place on the edge of the shell. By this unceasing process domicile is borne lightly above the body of the Nautilus, without in any way impeding its progress.

FIG. 32.—SHELL OF THE PEARLY NAUTILUS (Nautilus pompilius).

FIG. 33.—THE PEARLY NAUTILUS (Nautilus pompilius), AND SECTION OF ITS SHELL. After Professor Owen. a a, Partitions; b b, chambers; b', the last-formed chamber, in which the animal lives; c c, the siphuncle; d, attaching muscle; e e, the hollow arms; f f, retractile tentacles; g, muscular disk, or foot; h, the eye; i, position of funnel.

The chambers are all connected by a membranous tube slightly coated with nacre, which is connected with a large sac in the body of the animal, near the heart, and passes through a circular orifice and a short projecting tube in the centre of each partition wall, till it ends in the smallest chamber at the inner extremity of the shell. Dean Buckland believed this "syphon" to be an hydraulic apparatus acting as a "fine adjustment" of the specific gravity of the shell, by admitting water within it when expanded, and excluding it when contracted. As it contains an artery and vein near its origin at the mantle, Professor Owen has regarded it as subservient to the maintenance of a low vitality in the vacated portion of the shell. Dr. Henry Woodward is of the opinion that, whilst in the early life of the Nautilus this siphuncle forms the main point of attachment between the animal and its shell, it is in the adult "simply an aborted embryonal organ whose function is now filled by the shell-muscles, but which in the more ancient and straight-shelled representatives of the group (the Orthoceratites) was not merely an embryonal but an important organ in the adult."

Every one knows the shell of the Pearly Nautilus. It may be purchased at any shell-shop in a seaside watering-place, and is imported by hundreds every year from Singapore.

Mr. Owen's investigations confirmed his previous supposition that the Pearly Nautilus is inferior in its organisation to octopus, sepia, or any other known cephalopod; that it is not isolated, but that it recedes towards the gasteropods, to which belong the snail, the periwinkle, &c., and that in some of its characters its structure is analogously related to the still lower annulosa, or worms. Mr. Owen was just about to start for Paris with the intention of presenting a copy of his book to his celebrated contemporary and friend, and of showing him his dissections of the Nautilus which had been the subject of his research, when he heard of Baron Cuvier's death. It must have been to him a great sorrow and a grievous disappointment.

The Pearly Nautilus, then, is a true cephalopod, in that it has its foot divided and arranged in segments around its head, but the form and number of these segments are very different from those of any other of its class. Instead of there being eight, as in the argonaut and octopus, or ten, as in sepia and the calamaries, the Nautilus has about ninety projecting in every direction from around the mouth. They are short, round, and tapering, of about the length and thickness of the fingers of a child. Some of them are retractile into sheaths, and they are attached to fleshy processes (which might represent the child's hand), overlying each other, and covering the mouth on each side. They have none of the suckers with which the arms and tentacles of all the other cuttles are furnished, but their annulose structure, like the rings of an earthworm's body, gives them some little prehensile power. None of these numerous finger-like segments of the foot are flattened out like the broad membranous expansions of the argonaut, and, in fact, the Nautilus is without any members which can possibly be regarded as sails to hoist, or as oars with which to row. It has a strong beak, like the rest of the cuttles; but it has no ink-sac, for its shell is strong enough to afford it the protection which its two-gilled relatives have to seek in concealment.

The Pearly Nautilus usually creeps, like a snail, along the bed of the sea. It lives at the bottom, and feeds at the bottom, principally on crabs; and, as Dr. S. P. Woodward says, in his 'Manual of the Mollusca,' "perhaps often lies in wait for them, like some gigantic sea-anemone, with outspread tentacles." The shape of its shell is not well adapted for swimming, but it can ascend to the surface, if it so please, in the same manner as can all the cuttles—namely, by the outflow of water from its locomotor tube. The statement that it visits the surface of the sea of its own accord is at present, however, unconfirmed by observation.

But, if the Pearly Nautilus is the inferior and poor relation of the argonaut, it lives in a handsome house, and comes of an ancient lineage. The Ammonites, whose beautiful whorled and chambered shells, and the casts of them, are so abundant in every stratum, especially in the lias, the chalk, and the oolite, had four gills also. These Ammonites and the Nautili were amongst the earliest occupants of the ancient deep; and, with the Hamites, Turrilites, and others, lived upon our earth during a great portion of the incalculable period which has elapsed since it became fitted for animal existence, and in their time witnessed the rise and fall of many an animal dynasty. But they are gone now; and only the fossil relics of more than two thousand species (of which 188 were Nautili) remain to tell how important a race they were amongst the inhabitants of the old world seas. They and their congeners of the chambered shells, however, left one representative which has lived on through all the changes that have taken place on the surface of this globe since they became extinct—namely, Nautilus pompilius, the Nautilus of the pearly shell—the last of the Tetrabranchs.

I need offer no apology for endeavouring to explain the difference between the Nautilus of the chambered shell and the argonaut with the membranous arms which it was supposed to use as sails, when Webster, in his great standard dictionary, describes the one and figures the other as one and the same animal; and when a writer of the celebrity of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes also blends the two in the following poem, containing a sentiment as exquisite as its science is erroneous. I hope the latter distinguished and accomplished author, whose delightful writings I enjoy and highly appreciate, will pardon my criticism. I admit that the beauty of the thought might well atone for its inaccuracy, (of which the author is conscious,) were it not that the latter is made so attractive that truth appears harsh in disturbing it.


"This is the ship of pearl, which poets feign Sails the unshadowed main, The venturous bark that flings  On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings,  In gulfs enchanted, where the siren sings, And coral reefs lie bare,  Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

 Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl, Wrecked is the ship of pearl! And every chambered cell,  Where its dim, dreaming life was wont to dwell,  As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell, Before thee lies revealed,  Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

 Year after year beheld the silent toil That spread his lustrous coil; Still, as the spiral grew,  He left the past year's dwelling for the new,  Stole with soft step its shining archway through, Built up its idle door,  Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

 Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee, Child of the wandering sea, Cast from her lap forlorn!  From the dead lips a clearer note is born  Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn! While on mine ear it rings,  Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

 'Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, As the swift seasons roll! Leave thy low vaulted past;  Let each new temple, nobler than the last,  Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, Till thou at length art free,  Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea.'"