Nine New Deep-Sea Species Discovered on Whale Skeleton in Antarctica

First Posted: Mar 18, 2013 03:14 PM EDT

Deep beneath the waters of the Antarctic Ocean, previously unknown marine species lurked and fed from the remains of a whale. Now, researchers have identified these species and have located the first ever whale skeleton to harbor them in the Antarctic, nearly a mile below the surface.

The study, published in Deep-Sea Research II: Topic Studies in Oceanography, employed high definition cameras to survey the whale skeleton and the deep-sea animals living on the bones. The researchers then collected samples to analyze at the surface. While the skeleton itself was probably on the seafloor for several decades, the samples revealed several new species that thrived on the whale's remains--including a "bone-eating zombie worm" known as Osedax, which burrowed into the bones. Another species that was discovered was an isopod crustacean, similar to woodlice, which crawled over the skeleton.

"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," said co-author Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum in a press release. "Our discovery fills important gaps in this knowledge."

When a whale dies, it slowly sinks toward the ocean floor. While surface creatures often consume the lion's share of the whale's corpse, its remains eventually reach the bottom of the sea. There, deep-sea creatures feast on what's left. Known as a "whale fall," it can sustain small communities of these organisms for years to come.

Yet while researchers are certain that these skeletons dot the ocean floor, only six in the world have been discovered thus far.

"At the moment, the only way to find a whale fall is to navigate right over one with an underwater vehicle," said co-author Jon Copley in a press release. "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."

While it may be difficult to locate these skeletons, the information that they can provide is extremely useful. Nine new species were discovered on the whale skeleton in Antarctica, which means that scientists are far from cataloguing all of the life located beneath the ocean's waves.

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