Drhoz! (drhoz) wrote in wtf_nature,

WM, 33, enjoys long walks along the beach...

... to see 50-tonne whale carcases.

Reposting a December 2006 pair of posts, about globsters, whale falls, bone-eating snot-flowers, wood falls, and sea daisys, because of Saloonperfume's post about the Chilean Blob

Word of the Day : Globster - Large, gelatinous, organic masses that occasionally turn up on beaches. They're quite often claimed to be evidence of zogging huge octopuses, but the less romantic fact is that they're most likely the decomposing skin and blubber from a long-dead whale.

But what do I know? Maybe they're shoggoths. But assuming Life isn't imitating Art, ending up as a globster and giving something to fill a page in the Fortean Times is just one possible fate for a deceased whale.

Another is to become a Whale Fall. In shallower waters a carcase will be eaten within weeks, but should one fall in the deep ocean it can be the basis for a unique ecosystem, for centuries. Of course, most of the flesh gets eaten by the hagfish, rattails, and sleeper sharks that converge from all directions, but there is more than enough scraps, and more importantly fat and oil in the bones and saturating the surrounding sediment, to supoport some wonderfully strange organisms. Such as the Bone-eating Snot-flowers, polycheate worms that sink roots deep into the bone and use chemosynthetic bacteria to digest the marrow-oil. Then there's the lobsters, crabs, sea cucumbers, octopuses, and clams. These multi-tonne manna from heaven may the only way the species can hop between more reliable deep-sea food sources, such as cold seeps. Admittedly, they don't need to hop as far as you might think - the remains last so long that they should be a mere 25 kilometres apart.

Or rather, they were. The mass slaughter of whales may have led to the recent extinction of half of the Snot-flower's relatives - with 90 percent of whales gone, the carcases are now ten times as far apart as they used to be. A devastating blow if you're a little larva drifting thru the cold empty dark hoping against hope of finding a nice plump minke corpse.

But mass extinctions are nothing new to these communities - they've been doing it a LONG time - fossilised whale-falls have been found in Miocene deposits of Japan and California, and from the even older Oligocene of Washington. No doubt something very similar gave little cries of joy whenever mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, giant flesh-eating super-turtles and other super-predators of the sea carked it and drifted down into the dark abyss.

If the whale, on the other hand, makes it to shore before decomposition skins it into a globster, then the locals have another problem. Dead whales stink. And after a week or two have a tendency to explosively prolapse. As the people of Taiwan learnt to their cost when a sperm whale being shipped thru the centre of town sprayed internal organs across the street. (My favourite bit of the photo is the guy staring stupefied at the motorbike buried axle deep). They're also rather difficult to get rid of, as the people of Florence, Oregon, learnt to their cost when another dead sperm whale washed up on their beach in 1970.

They decided to blow it up.

The video footage of the results has become the the 5th-most-often-watched video in Internet history. The Dave Barry news column is almost as famous. It also inspired TheExplodingWhale.com, which will handily keep you up to date with other mega-carcase news as well.

The dead pygmy blue whale Desiree and I went to see at Yanchep last night was thankfully recently deceased. Probably a mere day or two, given the relative lack of stench and the fact the sharks had only got a few bites out of it before it washed up (altho judging by the size of the bite marks they must have been some quite large sharks). I hadn't realised before just how far back along the body the mouth cavity opens - the expansible fluting runs well down under where the belly-button would be on a human. Not the most flattering position to be washed ashore in, true, and it was a shame I could get a look at it's eye without risking the aforementioned sharks, but at least I could confirm it was a male - no nipples. It also goes some way to explaining how decomposition skins them so easily.

Alas, I don't have any photos - i neglected to check the batteries from the recharger were actually recharged before we got there - on the other hand the sun was below the horizon by the time we arrived anyway, and a small camera flash isn't going to hack it with something like a zonking huge whale anyway.

But at least I've seen a whale. A large, dead, slightly chewed, whale.

As well as dead whales, tangled kelp forests and big dead trees also end out on the deep-sea floor (altho they tend not to fossilise so well). As you can expect, they have their own specialist ecosystems - for example the Sea Daises, strange little echinoderms with no arms that are found only on deep wood. They're cute little things - and their babies grow up to quite a large size whilst still in the womb. See picture below.

Which begs the question, given they've only ever been found on wood, of how do they get from piece to piece? This website covers two possibilities - they either swim like jellyfish, or parachute.

As well as Xyloplax, there's Xylophaga, odd-looking deep-sea wood-boring clams. And mites! Which surprised me - I didn't know any arachnids could live that deep. But that's the point of life and this community - learn something new every day.
Tags: decomposition, deep sea, invertebrate, whale, worm
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