“When a whale dies, the story has just begun.” This beautiful paper-cutout puppet illustration of the different stages of how a whale decomposes, a process called whale fall. This ecological wonder supports the surrounding community of organisms for 50-75 years after the whale’s death. Animation by Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck. The research from MBARI:
When a large whale dies, its body often sinks directly to the sea bottom, especially if the animal is undernourished. Within days, active scavengers, such as sleeper sharks, rattails, hagfish, and amphipods, converge on the new food source and voraciously remove the flesh from the bones… In many cases the whale is stripped to the bone in a matter of months.
Within a year after the whale fall, the whalebones and nearby organically enriched sediment typically become infested with huge populations of polychaete worms and unusual crustaceans, as well as molluscs and other invertebrates. Worms often carpet the seabed at densities of up to 45,000 animals per square meter—higher densities than in any other deep-sea environment. Animals in this “enrichment-opportunist” community feed directly on organic material in the whalebones and surrounding sediment. Many of these animals appear to be unique to deep-sea whale falls, and many are new to science…
Thirty-million-year-old assemblages of fossil clams and whale bones suggest that whale-fall communities have been around at least as long as whales themselves. This persistence is particularly impressive because each whale-fall community is based on a transitory food source. Sooner or later, planktonic larvae of invertebrates at one whale fall must somehow find and colonize a new whale in order to survive. But whale falls might be relatively common. Smith estimates that, based on current whale populations and whale-fall community persistence, dead whales may occur roughly every 5 to 16 km along the seafloor off the Pacific coast of North America. Distances such as these are easily traversed by planktonic larvae.
Learn more about all of the stages with MBARI: Whale falls—islands of abundance and diversity in the deep sea.
Related book recommendations from our gift guide: The World of Food Chains with Max Axiom, Super Scientist and Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises: A Natural History and Species Guide.
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