Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My new favourite marine critter - the Argonaut.

Recently I was gifted a particularly beautiful shell by a friend who knew that I liked to collect such things. The shell was paper thin, translucent, and covered in rows upon rows of little bumps. I was in love. 

This curious specimen sparked a research rampage on my part until I tracked down the original owner of the shell and it’s story.
The newest shell in my collection - an Argonauta nodosa egg case
It turns out that my shell is not strictly a shell; it is in fact the egg case of a female Argonauta nodosa – commonly referred to as a Paper Nautilus. Argonauts are a group of pelagic octopuses and the lady Argonauts make these delicate egg cases to use as a brood chamber and also to help control their buoyancy in the water. Cool huh!

Argonauta nodosa, female in shell. Image by: David Paul / dpimages, Rights/Licence: All rights reserved reference: http://portphillipmarinelife.net.au/species/7832
As you can see in the images this octopus sits very differently to most other octopuses. Female argonauts slip themselves into the egg case so that their mouth is exposed at the front and their eight arms are tucked back into the case. The females have two specialised webbed tentacles that secrete the shell and can be wrapped around the egg case to hold it in place. They move around with the help of an enlarged funnel that they use to jet around the place. The chromatophores in the octopus's skin allow it to shift from a almost translucent white colour to a vivid purple, red or orange in a split second.

Argonauta nodosa - Photo credit: Karen GowlettHolmes
I have always been a lover of cephalopods and have previously created artworks inspired by the shells of the Nautilus and Ammonites (a prehistoric cephalopod). But I think these little guys are now my new favorite. They are just so weirdly wonderful! See the bottom of this post for links to a great video and some further readings. 

So once I knew a bit about these creatures I just had to create an embroidered artwork based on these beautiful egg cases. Although my egg case came from a species that is local to Australia; Argonauta nodosa (commonly known as the knobbed Argonaut) my design was based on the more widely distributed Argonauta argo (also knows as the greater Argonaut). 

I was torn between creating a bright colourful interpretation of the shell or a subtle white piece that more closely referenced that natural colouring of the egg case. 

So in the end … I made both. 
Both Paper nautilus artworks in the studio prior to framing
After mapping the ribbed pattern on an Argonauta argo egg case I created a brightly coloured piece using my favourite colour scheme of reds and oranges. I moulded the piece when it was drying to give it a subtle curved shape and pinned its edges directly down onto the mounting board so that it retained this three dimensionality within the narrow box frame. 

Sewing 'Red paper Nautilus'
Meredith pinning 'Red Paper Nautilus' into place prior to framing
Red Paper Nautilus (2016) by Meredith Woolnough, embroidery thread and pins on paper
I loved the bright red/orange version of the shell but I still wanted to attempt a white version. White has always been a difficult colour for me to work with because I have to restrict my drawn guidelines so I don’t stain the white yarn. But after a bit of experimentation (and a few close calls) I was able to replicate the design in pure white. 

Paper Nautilus (detail) by Meredith Woolnough
Paper Nautilus (2016) by Meredith Woolnough, embroidery thread and pins on paper
This white piece was very difficult to capture (forgive my crappy, over edited image above – white on white is tricky to shoot) Unfortunately the photo’s don’t capture the depth and subtle texture of this piece - but hopefully you can still get a bit of a feel for the piece.

Want to see these artwork in the flesh? They will be on show at Arcadian Artists in November 2016. 

Click HERE to watch a great video where Dr Julian Finn explains what Argonauts are and some findings that have come out of his PHD research on these fascinating creatures. 

Further reading:

Jereb. P, Roper. C, Norman. M, Finn. J, (2014), Cephalopods of the world: An annotated and illustrated catalogue of cephalopod species known to date, Volume 3. Octopods and Vampire squids, FAO, pp.235-237. http://www.fao.org/docrep/019/i3489e/i3489e.pdf visited 05/09/2016.

Finn. J, Norman. M, (2010), The Argonaut shell: gas-mediated buoyancy control in a pelagic octopus, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological sciences, published online 19/05/2010,. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2982015/ visited 05/09/2016



  1. Love this piece and the marine creature is indeed very intriguing. Mary Ann

  2. Beautiful! I've just received my copy of 'Embroidery' magazine with your work on the front cover. A treat that I'll save for a more leisurely moment.

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