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Whale Fall

When whale carcasses fall to the sea floor, they become food for a vast and complex array of ocean creatures, a community called a whale fall.

hagfish

Photo: Celeste Ramsay

Larger creatures, such as sleeper sharks and hagfish, may feast on a single whale carcass for months or years.

The largest mammals ever on our planet, past and present, whales are pretty remarkable creatures. When a whale dies, something else pretty remarkable forms. When whale carcasses fall to the sea floor, they become food for a vast and complex array of ocean creatures, a community called a whale fall.

Larger creatures, such as sleeper sharks and hagfish, may feast on a single whale carcass for months or years. The whale tissue that is torn apart from these creatures’ dining spreads about the surrounding seafloor, providing nutrients for creatures such as worms and crustaceans. As the carcass decomposes, sulphur is released, which attracts still more scavengers, like clams, mussels, more worms, etc.

The remains of other marine mammals don’t seem to spawn such a community, perhaps because their bodies aren’t nearly as large as whales. Also, unlike other marine mammals, whale bones are rich in fats. It’s thought that a whale fall community may live off of the fats and sulphides of one set of whale bones for up to a century.

Whale falls aren’t easy to find, nor to track and study. Only about ten “natural” whale falls have been studied thus far by scientists. About twenty more have been artificially created by dumping beached whales out into the ocean, not an easy task either.

However, the host of new species discovered in whale falls, many of which seem to be unique to this environment, make the challenges worth the effort. One such creature is a worm, Osedax, which manages to root its way into whale bones and excavate the fat without the help of a mouth, stomach, or eyes. It’s name, Osedax, is Latin for bone-devourer.

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