“Whale Falls” Have Large Impacts in the Deep Sea

whale fall skeleton
A NOAA video examines a different whale fall skeleton – and the varied creature who scavenge on it – near the Channel Islands off California. Click on this screenshot to watch.

WHEN A WHALE FALLS TO THE DEEP SEAFLOOR, A COMMUNITY FORMS AROUND ITS NUTRITIOUS CARCASS. Scavengers like sleeper sharks and hagfish arrive first to consume skin and muscle. Microbes convene to work on the scraps those fish scatter. Worms, snails and crabs show up to graze through its array of bones.

Newly described worms called Osedax, which live only within the bones of fallen whales, appear. By one estimate, there may be hundreds of thousands of fallen whale carcasses in the world’s oceans, as close as one every 10 miles along the abyssal plain.

Harvard geobiologist Jeffrey Marlow describes A Whale’s Afterlife” in New Yorker Magazine, writing about a fallen whale researchers named Rosebud as they towed her  to her resting place a half-mile deep.

“For denizens of the seafloor, a whale fall is like a Las Vegas buffet – an improbably bounty in the middle of the desert,” he says. “Rosebud had delivered about a thousand years’ worth of food in one fell swoop.”

Whale falls can take decades to disappear, possibly longer – Marlow estimates that Rosebud could take half a century. In the meantime, researchers have made multiple boat/ROV trips to follow her progress.

PRINCIPAL SOURCES: A Whale’s Afterlife”, New Yorker ; “What is a whale fall,” NOAA; “Whale Fall,” National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA; “Diving on the Rosebud Whale Fall,” NautilusLive.