Marine biology: Whale fall

“The fatty bones of dead whales provide rich pickings for creatures on the sea floor. Amanda Haag meets the scientists who go to extreme and unpleasant lengths to study the unique ecosystems on these corpses.” From Nature:

433566ai1_1 In 1987, a manned submersible called Alvin was making a routine dive along the muddy plains of the deep sea when its pilot spotted what he thought was the fossilized remains of a dinosaur. Instead of an exotic underwater beast, it turned out to be the 21-metre-long skeleton of a blue whale. But atop this mass of bones the pilot did find something exotic: a carpet of creatures, including bacteria and worms, similar to those found on the flanks of underwater volcanoes.

The Alvin team had happened upon what have since become known as ‘whale falls’ — communities of creatures that thrive among the sulphur-laden ooze of decaying whales. Just as windfalls deliver a sudden bounty of ripened fruit, whale falls see the death of a whale bring a host of nutrients to the sea floor. The falls are few and far between, and difficult to track and study, but researchers are learning ever more — sometimes through extreme measures — about the new species to be found among the remains. Some 39 of the species discovered so far are thought to be especially suited or even unique to this environment.

More here.