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03/20/2013

Bone-eating zombie worm found munching on Antarctic whale skeleton

 

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Six of the microorganisms scientists found munching on a decades-old whale skeleton in an Antarctic undersea crater. (PHOTO CREDIT: UK Natural Environment Research Council ChEsSo Consortium)

 

 

Scientists have only ever discovered six whale skeletons at the bottom of the sea.

A "whale fall," as the carcass of a whale that has fallen to the ocean floor is known, is such a rare find that researchers have resorted to purposely sinking carcasses and bones in order to study them.

This week, a team of marine biologists announced they had discovered a seventh natural "whale fall" and the first ever seen in Antarctica -- plus a community of new deep-sea organisms munching on the decades-old bones.

The British research team was exploring an undersea crater near the South Sandwich islands with a remotely-operated vehicle when they spied a series of bleached-out cubes or blocks lying on the crater floor, more than a kilometre below the surface. The cubes turned out to be whale vertebrae, the remains of a southern Minke.

Antarctica is prime whale territory, but no one had ever studied a "whale fall" in the region before.

The researchers pored over the remains with high-definition cameras and took samples to the surface in order to study all the different creatures contributing to the decomposition of the animal, even years after primary scavengers had finished their work. The animal probably died decades ago, the scientists say.

They turned up no fewer than nine new species of microrganisms, from a bone-eating "zombie worms" called Osedax chowing down on the skeleton itself, to a crustacean similar to woodlice crawling on the vertebrae. There were several species of limpets identical to those living in deep volcanic vents nearby.

Examining the "whale fall" helps provide insight into how nutrients are recycled in the ocean, lead author Diva Amon said in a statement announcing the discovery.

"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," Amon said.

The team included researchers from the University of Southampton, the Natural History Museum, the British Antarctic Survey, the National Oceanography Centre, and Oxford University. The study was published in Deep-Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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