A team of marine biologists discovered the first whale skeleton on the ocean floor near Anarctica, and thriving on its remains were nine new species of deep-sea creatures. One of those creatures happened to be a “bone-eating zombie worm.”
The whale skeleton was found nearly a mile beneath the surface in an undersea crater. The nine new species of deep-sea creatures were found feeding on its bones.
Now, I would normally write something like “bone-eating zombie worm” off as being PR people trying to get attention for a story by playing on the geek culture around zombies. But the mention of the worms was stuffed at the bottom of a press release with little detail. The researchers seem a lot more excited about the whale skeleton—after all, only six natural whale skeletons have been discovered on the seafloor, worldwide.
Here’s a picture of the little fella (story continues after):
The research involved the University of Southampton, Natural History Museum, British Antarctic Survey, National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and Oxford University. The findings were published today in Deep-Sea Research II: Topical Studies in Oceanography.
They scanned the whale bones with high-definition cameras, and collected samples to bring back and analyze on the surface. They believe the bones are several decades old.
According to the release “Samples also revealed several new species of deep-sea creatures thriving on the whale’s remains, including a ‘bone-eating zombie worm’ known as Osedax burrowing into the bones and a new species of isopod crustacean, similar to woodlice, crawling over the skeleton. There were also limpets identical to those living at nearby deep-sea volcanic vents.”
When whales die, they sink to the ocean floor. Scavengers quickly devour their flesh, and after a while organisms form colonies on their skeletons. Then bacteria breaks down the fats in the whale bones. Other creatures, which are actually commonly referred to as “zombie worms,” can also digest the bones.
“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,” says co-author Dr Adrian Glover at the Natural History Museum. “Our discovery fills important gaps in this knowledge.”
All photos courtesy of UK Natural Environment Research Council ChEsSo Consortium