Palumbi compares the ability to read genes to counting the rings of a tree ?but looking at the history of an entire population, not just an individual. “Knowing the history of populations is critically important to managing their future,?says Palumbi, “especially for populations like these whales that have figured out how to dodge the effects of climate change.?/p>
Undertakers in the Deep Sea—A New World Discovered
Earlier forensic DNA work by Palumbi and his colleagues revealed that whale populations in the North Atlantic were as much as ten times greater than today. New technologies that allow researchers to observe the deep-sea, now point to another unintended legacy of hunting whales ?the elimination of entire communities of deep-sea animals.
Craig Smith, from the University of Hawaii, studies dead whales after they have sunk to the seafloor. Known as whale falls, their decomposing bodies and skeletons provide an energy source for specialized communities of animals that can last 50 to 100 years.
Smith and his colleagues first happened upon a whale skeleton in 1987 while doing a deep-sea survey using the submersible Alvin. They were amazed to find hundreds of species of animals encrusting the bones. Some of these species were remarkably similar to the sulfur loving clams, mussels and tube worms observed around hydrothermal vents. Smith immediately suspected that they might be related.
Today, Smith and others have traced the succession of events that lead to these aggregations of animals. They feed these communities like feeding pigeons in a park except that in Smith’s case, they tow a dead whale out to the deep sea, place a transponder on it, and drop it to the sea floor. The transponder l