Scientists found the first whale skeleton in Antarctica.
The icy continent at the bottom of our planet boasts a large whale population, but skeletons have never been found on the ocean floor. Along with the southern Minke whale skeleton found almost a mile underwater in an undersea crater, scientists also discovered at least nine new species feeding off the bones.
Whale carcasses provide a huge benefit to the seafloor ecosystems they happen to die on top of. When whales die in open sea, their bodies sink to the bottom of the ocean, where their rotting corpses become artificial reefs of sorts. The whale body also serves as a food source for the microbes, fish and all the other organisms down there. Whales give back mightily to their environments upon death, and many cheesy “circle of life” comments come to mind.
“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,” Diva Amon told Science Codex. “Examining the remains of this southern Minke whale gives insight into how nutrients are recycled in the ocean, which may be a globally important important process in our oceans.” Amon is the lead author of the new study and based at University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science.
So far, only six whale skeletons, called a whale fall, have ever been found on the seafloor. Finding them is not easy.
“At this moment, the only way to find a whale fall is to navigate right over one with an underwater vehicle,” said Dr. Jon Copley, a co-author of the study also of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science. “We were just finishing a dive with the UK’s remotely operated vehicle, Isis, when we glimpsed a row of pale-colored blocks in the distance, which turned out to be whale vertebrae on the seabed.
When a whale dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean, scavengers quickly strip the carcass of flesh, and over time bacteria and creatures like the zombie worm digest the fat in the whale’s bones.
“One of the great remaining mysteries of deep ocean biology is how these tiny invertebrates can spread between the isolated habitats these carcasses provide on the seafloor. Our discovery fills important gaps in this knowledge.”