Wealth of cephalopod research lost in a 19th century shipwreck

paper nautilus

In the early 1800s, cephalopod researcher Jeanne Villepreux-Power showed that the paper nautilus (Argonauta argo) creates its own shell. Much of Villepreux-Power’s work was lost in a shipwreck.

Shannon Rankin/NMFS/SWFSC/NOAA Photo Library/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)

There are some 3 million shipwrecks scattered across the ocean floor, UNESCO has estimated, and most of them are still waiting to be found. One of those ships, which sank off the French coast in 1843, carried a treasure trove of science — most of the papers and research equipment of Jeanne Villepreux-Power, who was one of the leading cephalopod researchers of her time.

Jeanne Villepreux was born in 1794 in Juillac, a rural village in southwest France. When she was 17 or 18 (depending on whose story you read), she went to Paris, where she worked as a seamstress. She must have been a very good one because she embroidered the dress of Italian princess Marie-Caroline, the Duchess of Berry, for her wedding to the French king’s nephew.

At the wedding, Villepreux met James Power, a wealthy merchant from the Caribbean island of Dominica who was then living in Sicily. Two years later, Villepreux moved to Sicily and married Power, and the couple settled in Messina.

There, “Jeanne became a lady of leisure,” Helen Scales notes in her recent book Spirals in Time. “She no longer sewed or embroidered dresses for a living, and she didn’t continue with such genteel pursuits to keep herself busy… Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and became a scientist.”

Over the next two decades, Villepreux-Power studied the island’s wildlife, corresponding with top naturalists of the time and eventually writing two guides to Sicily. “Way ahead of her time,” Scales writes, “she came up with the idea of restocking overfished rivers with fish and crayfish.” And she documented tool use in Octopus vulgaris, describing how the animal could use stones to wedge open Pinna nobilis shells.

Her most significant cephalopod work was on Argonauta argo, the paper nautilus. Some scientists thought that this species must steal its shells from other animals, but Villepreux-Power showed through a series of experiments that the paper nautilus actually secretes its own shell material. That lets the creature add onto its shell as it grows and repair the shell if it breaks (or a scientist comes along and breaks off a piece). And to do these studies, Villepreux-Power first had to invent the modern aquarium.

“Although the veracity of her findings were denied by some, they were championed by Sir Richard Owen, founder of the British Museum of Natural History, who presented her results to the Zoological Society of London,” Louise Allcock of the University of Ireland Galway and colleagues note May 11 in the Journal of Natural History.

In 1843, Villepreux-Power and her husband decided to move to London and then Paris. They traveled overland and sent most of their belongings by boat. But the ship sailed into a storm and sank, taking with it most of Villepreux-Power’s scientific papers and research equipment. This is “the kind of romanticized disaster that rarely strikes scientists today, but perhaps [is] a reminder to do regular data backups,” Scales writes.

Because Villepreux-Power regularly corresponded with other noted naturalists of her time, all of her research was not lost. But the shipwreck may explain why she has so few scientific papers published under her name, Allcock and colleagues write. Nevertheless, Villepreux-Power had a significant impact on her field, including being named as the mother of aquaria by Sir Richard Owen.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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