Peter Ward, Paleontologist

Peter Ward

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.


Lesson Plans

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    Lesson Plan
    Be a Scientist
    This lesson requires students to do a report on distinct scientific fields using Shape of Life videos, Internet resources and a handout about “Cool Science Careers."

    Full Lesson Plan

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    Lesson Plan
    Squid: Instructor Guide
    Lab dissection of a squid, a member of Class Cephalopoda (along with the octopus and nautilus). Supported by several Shape of Life segments, students interpret squid adaptations as a radical case of divergent evolution: A line of ancestral snails abandoned the life of sluggish grazing and foraging in favor of a new niche as speedy open water predators. Students will understand that the shelled, but squid-like nautilus, is a “transitional form” en route to the swimming, shell- less cephalopods. Finally, they use the squid to explore another macroevolutionary pattern: convergent evolution.

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