Monday, January 27, 2014

bone-eating worms

Bone-eating worms have been munching on the skeletons of dead whales (and most likely the ancestors of whales) for tens of millions of years. But they were only discovered back in 2012.  Robert Vrijenhoek was exploring the floor of Monterey Bay in a submarine when he came upon a whale carcass:
"One of the first things we noticed during that first dive were large white mats of bacteria that were decomposing tissue and other parts of the carcass. A little octopus had taken up residence in a ‘cave’ created by the hole in the back of the whale’s skull. Below the octopus’ lair was a pile of crab legs and other crab parts. He was having a great time picking off the bright red lithodid crabs that were crawling all over the carcass, bringing the crabs back to his home, and dropping the debris on his doorstep. So this dead whale had become a little self-contained ecosystem, complete with predators, decomposers, and bacteria."
"But the other thing we noticed was the proliferation of these little red worm-like creatures. They were all over the bones. They were growing like crazy, carpeting the remaining whale bones. The worms had short trunks topped by red plumes, and were about an inch or two in height. There were thousands of them waving in the current. It was really fascinating to watch."
A few of these worm species have been described now, all under the genus “Osedax” (which means bone-eater). They’re part of the final chapter in the after life of a whale — gathering up the last remaining nutrients and reducing the skeleton to dust.

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