Berkeley -- A fossilized whale skeleton excavated 20 years ago amid the stench and noise of a seabird and elephant seal rookery on California's A o Nuevo Island turns out to be the youngest example on the Pacific coast of a fossil whale fall and the first in California, according to University of California, Berkeley, paleontologists.
Whale falls, first recognized in the 1980s, are whale carcasses that fall to the deep-ocean floor where, like an oasis in the desert, they attract a specialized group of clams, crabs and worms that feed for up to decades on the oil-rich bones and tissues.
Some scientists think these random, deep-ocean oases are stepping stones for organisms moving from one ocean floor environment to another - whether a hot vent, a cold seep or a whale carcass - in search of sustenance from energy-rich chemicals.
"The fossil whale fall shows that these deep-sea communities didn't need especially large whales as a source of nutrients - in fact, the fossil whale from Ao Nuevo Island was no longer than a VW bug," said Nick Pyenson, a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Department of Integrative Biology.
Pyenson and museum scientist David M. Haasl, both of UC Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology, published their findings in this week's online edition of the journal Biology Letters.
The A o Nuevo skeleton, discovered in 1987 by then-UC Santa Cruz graduate student Brian Fadely and excavated by Graham Worthy and local fossil expert Frank Perry, was considered a rather small and unremarkable fossil whale - at 11 feet, it was less than half the size of today's smallest baleen whales. The bones, including skull, spine and ribs, were displayed at Long Marine Laboratory in Santa Cruz until the lab donated the partially articulated skeleton to the Museum of Paleontology in 2005.
As Pyenson prepared it for the museum's collection, however, he noticed small clams in the nooks and crannies of the skull. He found 21
|Contact: Robert Sanders|
University of California - Berkeley