Whale Fall


I heard an old Scientific American podcast the other day: “Whaddya do with a dead whale.”

Here’s the gist:

When a whale dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. This is called “whale fall.”

Huge swathes of the bottom of the ocean are basically sand with no life. These massive dead whales become oases in a vast desert.

Their decomposition goes through these stages:

Stage One

The bigger chunks of whale meat are eaten by  sharks, hagfish, crabs and such. Whales are big, so this stage could take anywhere from a few months to two years.

That’s TWO YEARS of constant eating before we move to the next stage. Whoa.

Stage Two

Worms. Apparently, worms and similar yummies cover the carcass from head to fin. “These are big, beautiful, and bizarre worms,” said one of the researchers. The assumption is that at least some of them are specialists, eating nothing but dead whales.

No one knows how these worms actually find the whale carcasses. Consider that, although there are many thousands of dead whales down there, they’re scattered over an almost unimaginably huge area.

Stage Three

This stage goes for decades. This is when mats of bacteria, clams, mussels, and more worms, come to eat the bones.

During this stage, researchers found 30,000 animals on a single skeleton. Did they seriously count them all? I betcha some post-grad had to do it.

This stage is called the “sulfophilic” stage, and here’s one place where the podcast made a mistake. They said that the bacteria eating the bones produced sulphur. But “philic” suggests “lover,” meaning that the creature EATS, not produces, something (in this case, sulphide, found in the bones).

I really like the idea of these thousands of whale bodies down there. And each one creates the physical structure and nourishment for communities that could continue longer than I’ve been alive.


Whaddya Do with a Dead Whale?

Scientific American Podcast Page

NOAA Undersea Research Program: This Whale’s (After) Life

2 Responses to Whale Fall

  1. Jeffrey September 2, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing. Nature just has so many ways to amaze …

  2. Karen September 2, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    Thanks for that. It was really interesting and I’m gonna see if I can work it into a conversation this weekend.

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