This is only the sixth whale skeleton that has ever been found on the floor of the ocean. Despite the large populations of whales in the Antarctic, this is the first time one of these 'whale falls' has been found in the region. And it was found entirely by chance.
"At the moment, the only way to find a whale fall is to navigate right over one with an underwater vehicle," said Dr. Jon Copley, a Senior Lecturer in Marine Ecology at University of Southampton's Department of Ocean and Earth Science, who co-wrote the study. "We were just finishing a dive with the U.K.'s remotely operated vehicle, Isis, when we glimpsed a row of pale-coloured blocks in the distance, which turned out to be whale vertebrae on the seabed."
The skeleton was found in near the centre of the Kemp Caldera, a large undersea crater about 1,500 km east-northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
When a whale dies, its body settles down onto the ocean floor, where marine life quickly strips it down to the bones. The bones, however, can remain for several decades and over time they play host to a small marine microcosm, as bacteria and parasites feed off the nutrients in the bones and themselves become food for larger species.
"The planet's largest animals are also a part of the ecology of the very deep ocean, providing a rich habitat of food and shelter for deep sea animals for many years after their death," said Diva Amon, a post-grad researcher at the University of Southampton. "Examining the remains of this southern Minke whale gives insight into how nutrients are recycled in the ocean, which may be a globally important process in our oceans."
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The researchers estimate that these particular bones, which they identified as being from a Minke whale, have been on the ocean floor for a few decades, at least. They discovered several new species living on the bones, as well as specimens of a 'bone-eating zombie worm' called Osedax and a pill bug-like species of isopod crustacean.
"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 study co-author Dr. Adrian Glover, a researcher at London's Natural History Museum. "Our discovery fills important gaps in this knowledge."
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