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Fleshing out the life histories of dead whales
Date:12/6/2010

Dead whales that sink down to the seafloor provide a feast for deep-sea animals that can last for years. Previous research suggested that such "whale falls" were homes for unique animals that lived nowhere else. However, after sinking five whale carcasses in Monterey Canyon, researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) found that most of the animals at these sites were not unique to whale falls, but were common in other deep-sea environments as well. Nonetheless, the whale-fall communities did include a few very abundant animals that were "bone specialists," including 15 species of bone-eating Osedax worms and several newly discovered species of bone-eating snails.

In 2004, evolutionary biologist Robert Vrijenhoek and his colleagues announced the discovery of a new family of bone-eating worms, which they found two years earlier living on a dead whale in Monterey Canyon, almost 3,000 meters below the sea surface. Following this discovery, Vrijenhoek's team set out to study how these worms survived, reproduced, and spread from one whale carcass to another.

To this end, MBARI researchers and marine operations staff hauled five very smelly dead whales off the beaches of Monterey Bay, attached weights to the carcasses, and sank them at different depths in Monterey Canyon.

Over the next six years, MBARI researchers and collaborators revisited these whale falls every few months. This long-term, concerted effort involved dozens of dives using MBARI's remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

After each dive, MBARI's video-lab staff identified all of the animals visible in video recordings taken by the ROV, and entered the results into MBARI's Video Annotation and Reference System (VARS) database.

One result of this effort was the discovery of 14 additional species of Osedax worms, as well as new species of anemones, snails, worms, crabs, and other deep-sea animals. At first, this work appeared to suppo
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Contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett
kfb@mbari.org
831-775-1835
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Source:Eurekalert  

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