A team of U.K. marine biologists have now found a whale skeleton and along with it, nine species of organisms (including zombie worms) that were found in the deep-sea feeding on the bones of the whale.
This is the sixth such skeleton to be found on the seafloor and even though Antarctica is home to many whales, few "whale falls" have been observed in this region. A whale fall is when a dead whale has fallen to the ocean floor. Oceanographers like Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii believe that these whale falls have been sustaining life from the past 30 million years by providing nutrition for many organisms in the ocean.
The present study was conducted by researchers from University of Southampton, Natural History Museum, British Antarctic Survey, National Oceanography Centre and Oxford University.
"The planet's largest animals are also a part of the ecology of the very deep ocean, providing a rich habitat of food and shelter for deep sea animals for many years after their death. Examining the remains of this southern Minke whale gives insight into how nutrients are recycled in the ocean, which may be a globally important process in our oceans," said Diva Amon, from the University of Southampton and the Natural History Museum and lead author of the study.
When these whales sink to the floor, they deliver a massive amount of organic matter (weighing 30 to 160 tons) into the ocean. First, scavengers eat up the tissue, followed by bacteria that slowly break down the fat deposits. Also, other researchers have documented the presence of "zombie worms" that eat the bones of the carcass.
The zombie worms have no eyes, legs, mouth or stomach. They use their roots to invade the bones of dead whales breaking down fats inside the bones with the help of certain bacteria. These bizarre worms are placed in a genus called Osedax, which in Latin means "bone devourer". Earlier, BBC had reported the discovery of these worms in a 3-million-year-old fossil in Italy.
Researchers found the whale skeleton during an exploration at the South Sandwich Islands.
"At the moment, the only way to find a whale fall is to navigate right over one with an underwater vehicle. We were just finishing a dive with the UK's remotely operated vehicle, Isis, when we glimpsed a row of pale-coloured blocks in the distance, which turned out to be whale vertebrae on the seabed," Dr Jon Copley at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, according to a news release.
The research team used high-definition cameras to analyze the types of living organisms feeding on the carcass. According to the study team, the carcass might have sunk many decades ago and it now houses new species of deep-sea creatures. The organisms include species of Osedax, isopod crustacean, similar to woodlice and limpets.
"One of the great remaining mysteries of deep ocean biology is how these tiny invertebrates can spread between the isolated habitats these whale carcasses provide on the seafloor. Our discovery fills important gaps in this knowledge," said Dr. Adrian Glover at the Natural History Museum and co-author of the study.
The study is published in the journal Deep-Sea Research II: Topical Studies in Oceanography.
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