Peter Ward, Paleontologist

The history of life can be great theater. . . . The development of the gas-and liquid-filled chamber in the shell liberated the nautiloids from the sea bottom and set in motion an evolutionary history that is still unfolding today. -- Peter Ward

Paleontologist Peter D. Ward studies life on Earth—where it came from, how it might end and how utterly rare it might be. One animal of particular interest to Ward is the chambered nautilus. The ancestors of nautilus were molluscs that developed the ability to regulate the mixture of water and gas in their shells, increase their buoyancy and rise off the sea floor. Millions of years ago, these large nautiloids dominated the oceans. Today, only a few species of its descendants remain.

After extensive study of nautiloid fossils, Ward craved seeing a living Nautilus in its natural habitat off the coast of New Caledonia. Unfortunately, these animals spend most of their time on the sea floor, over 1000 feet below the surface, much deeper than a human in SCUBA gear can safely dive. However each night, the creatures rise to the surface to feed and then before morning return to the bottom to avoid being eaten by faster moving animals like fish. Ward traveled to New Caledonia, and dove at night in dangerous waters in order to observe this ancient species of mollusc in its natural habitat -- a species that has survived nearly unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.

About Peter Ward’s career

Peter Ward is a Professor of Biology and Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. He is currently examining the nature of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event with studies in France and Spain involving detailed fieldwork, which concentrates on ammonites and bivalves. Ward is also researching speciation patterns and the ecology of the living cephalopods, nautilus and Sepia.

Ward is committed to saving nautilus species from their current threat of being caught for their shells: the demand for the shells for jewelry and ornaments has increased. He is author of several books including On Methuselah's Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions; The Natural History of Nautilus; and The Medea Hypothesis, 2009, (listed by the New York Times as one of the “100 most important ideas of 2009”). Ward gave a TED talk in 2008 about mass extinctions.

 

Peter Ward
Career Questions and Answers

How did you choose your present profession?
I was always "called" by science, in that for reasons unknown Science just seemed to be the most interesting endeavor that humans can do.  Others are pulled to art, or business, or religion.  Who knows why?  But I knew early on.  Nevertheless some scientists do not enter science until even late in life.

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
Unfortunately, our education system seems to think that math is the way to enter science. I prefer to think that creativity and imagination are equally or even more important.  It is really not about your intellect.  It is about your desire. 

What do you like best about your profession?
I love the freedom.  I love the fact that I am never bored. I love the fact that I find myself, routinely, the stupidist person in any group of scientists yet I am never judged for that. 

What web sites and references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work that was featured in The Shape of Life series?

Because of my work, and the New York Times article about it, two very interesting 12 years olds started Savethenautilus.com.   They and their parents came with me on my last trip, to Samoa, this past March.  New York Times article ‘Loving the Chambered Nautilus to Death”

About my nautilus research

Since The Shape of Life has come out - and in my estimation it remains the best - the BEST - natural history series ever on television by orders of magnitude - the Astrobiology revolution has come to prominence.  Any of the Astrobiology portals are good.  But we also live in a world where climate change is important.  I recommend Realclimate.com.