- Researchers aboard a deep-sea exploration vessel called E/V Nautilus discovered a whale carcass off the coast of California, more than 3,000 meters down.
- It was covered in all kinds of sea creatures, from octopuses in the genus Muusoctopus to bone-eating worms that dissolve the skeleton with acid.
- So-called “whale falls” are a buffet in an otherwise desolate environment, the ocean floor, and often help researchers make new discoveries.
Following is a transcript of the video.
“This is a whale fall!”
“Oh, whale fall!”
“Here we go, baby!”
Narrator: This is a dead whale, which scientists recently discovered at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean covered in all kinds of creatures from bone-eating worms to deep-sea octopuses.
“Oh, my God, there are so many.”
” I count 15 octopuses!”
Narrator: The bottom of the ocean is a desolate place. Normally, the only food you’ll find there is what’s called marine snow: tiny specks of organic material falling from the surface. And that’s why there aren’t many critters crawling or swimming at the bottom. But once in a while, the stuff falling from above is a lot bigger – whale-sized, if you will. Whales, of course, are enormous – weighing up to 180 metric tons. So when they fall to the bottom, they can sustain entire ecosystems … for years.
“Just think of the amount of calories in a whale here. They are the equivalent of so much marine snow it’s hard to even compare. It’s not even digested all the way.”
Narrator: That’s one of the 31 scientists aboard the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus. A ship that explores the seafloor. In the fall of 2019, the crew came across this baleen whale more than 3,000 meters down. And by the time they arrived, it was overrun with octopuses. More specifically, Muusoctopus robustus:a little-known purplish species that inhabits the deep sea.One even photobombed the camera! What’s strange is that octopuses are predators – they don’t usually eat dead tissue, which is why experts think they were feasting on other critters on top of the whale carcass. Such as crustaceans or snails. They likely use the suckers on their tentacles to pick up their prey and then carefully transfer them from sucker to sucker into their mouths. It’s like a feeding conveyor belt. But if those octopuses look eerie to you, wait until you learn about the bone-eating worms called Osedax. There are so many of them here that it looks like the whale skeleton is coated in algae! These worms have no mouths and no guts. Instead, they secrete acid to dissolve bone and then they rely on bacteria to do the rest.
“So these are worms that have symbiotic associations with bacteria. They have no more gut themselves. Instead, they have these rootlets that burrow into the bone and then the bacteria are able to metabolize the fats and oils that are in the bone themselves.”
Narrator: In other words, they basically outsource digestion! You’ll also notice some eel-like creatures swimming around. As it turns out, they’re not actually eels, but likely long-bodied fish known as eelpouts, which have a taste for decaying whale blubber.
Chad King [Research Specialist at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary]: We saw one or two in particular grab onto flesh and do what we were calling an alligator roll – spinning around to twist off pieces of flesh.
Narrator: The researchers also saw other kinds of worms, crabs, and a plump lobster, which they joked may have been fat from feeding on the whale.
Chad King: He was a little lethargic and maybe not going to be able to swim away too fast.
Narrator: In fact, a lot of these animals look pretty full.
“So, you just had a big meal … it’s like post-Thanksgiving, right? You just have to sit on the sofa.
“Oh, my God, all of them!”
Narrator: With so many animals feeding on the carcass, it can degrade in less than a decade and considering how vast the ocean is, stumbling on one only months after it died is really lucky.
Chad King: Whale falls are very rare, relatively, and the chance encounter like this was really important for science.
Narrator: For example, it will help researchers better understand these elusive, deep-sea animals like those bone-eating worms, which is one reason why they were so excited.
“Wow, this is incredible.”
“The dinner bell ringing, right.”
“We are so excited up here. Just saying.”
“Ah, this is so cool. This is amazing.”
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