Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things


Wild Things

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.

Sponsor Message

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.

Animals,, Oceans

Growth of mining on land may promote invasions at sea

By Sarah Zielinski 7:46pm, April 21, 2015
Ballast water taken in to keep ships stable could, when discharged elsewhere, release species that become invasive in their new homes.
Ecosystems,, Ecology

Before you plant this spring, consider the birds

By Sarah Zielinski 10:00am, April 20, 2015
A study of Chicago neighborhoods finds that the plants in private yards influence the variety of birds that live in the area.
Animals

How many manatees live in Florida?

By Sarah Zielinski 4:30pm, April 15, 2015
The most recent official count reports more than 6,000 manatees in Florida waters, but a new estimate may give a better picture of the population.

Flight delayed: There’s a coyote on the runway

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, April 14, 2015
A new study tallies up airport incidents involving carnivores and finds coyotes are the biggest threat.
Animals,, Oceans

Tiny sea turtles are swimmers, not drifters

By Sarah Zielinski 12:00pm, April 9, 2015
Young green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles moved in different directions than instruments set adrift in the sea, which shows the animals were swimming.
Animals,, Ecology,, Climate

Eggs and other land foods won’t feed polar bears

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, April 5, 2015
Polar bears will not be able to survive on land by eating birds, eggs and vegetation, a new review concludes.
Animals,, Conservation

How human activities may be creating coywolves

By Sarah Zielinski 8:00am, April 1, 2015
Endangered red wolves will mate with coyotes when their partners are killed, which often happens because of human activities, a new study finds.
Animals,, Conservation

‘If you build it they will come’ fails for turtle crossings

By Sarah Zielinski 2:00pm, March 25, 2015
Turtles and snakes barely used an ecopassage built to make their movements safer. Scientists blame poor fencing that failed to keep them off the roadway.
Animals,, Conservation

Conservationists should make friends with hunters

By Sarah Zielinski 1:22pm, March 20, 2015
A survey of outdoor enthusiasts in rural New York finds that both hunters and birdwatchers are likely to engage in conservation behaviors, such as donating money.
Animals

Evidence of ‘yeti’ probably came from a Himalayan black bear

By Sarah Zielinski 2:21pm, March 17, 2015
Last year, a genetic analysis revealed two hairs from an unknown species of bear in Asia. A new study finds that they belong to rare Himalayan black bears.
Subscribe to RSS - Wild Things