• McKinley Valentine

Eerie ecosystem: Whalefall

When a whale dies and sinks to the ocean floor, it creates a new ecosystem that changes the local food web for up to a century afterwards. They only occur in deep sea areas where the very cold water temperature slows rotting and there are fewer large scavengers, so it reaches the bottom in one piece.


First, as just a ridiculous amount of food, the carcass attracts mobile guys like sharks and hagfish, who eat the soft tissues. The sediment around it becomes incredibly nutrient rich from all the falling bits of whale, and attracts worms, lobsters, and clams that burrow into the ground. Bits of whale float up, too, and attract plankton, which attracts more creatures to the waters above it.


Finally, sulfophilic bacteria cover the bones and break down the lipids (fats) embedded in them. "The bacterial mats [see photo] provide nourishment for mussels, clams, limpets and sea snails. As whale bones are rich in lipids, representing 4–6% of its body weight, the final digestion stage can last between 50 and 100 years."

underwater whale skeleton

The amount of carbon tied up in a typical single whale carcass (about two metric tonnes of carbon for a typical 40-tonne carcass) is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon that would ordinarily fall to the same 50-metre area in 2,000 years. (see: marine snow)


Also, this is unique to whales: whale sharks, also huge, do not decompose past the scavenger stage because their bones aren't nearly as rich in fat. (Whalefall on Wikipedia)


Aaahh what: acid worm

One of the organisms that eats whalebones is a worm that uses acid to drill into the bone to the marrow. Only the females can do this, and so to get at the fat and collagen, the males have to live inside the females. Up to a hundred males living inside one female. ALSO, the actual guy who studies these worms doesn't know how they eat the nutrients because the worms don't have digestive tracts.


Edit: I just remembered that corsets used to be reinforced with whale bones, there's a hook for a steampunk murder mystery right there.


Edit 2: Okay so the 'whalebone' in corsets refers to baleen.


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