Minke Whale Skeleton Found At Bottom Of Antarctic Ocean
March 18, 2013

Whale Skeleton Found At Bottom Of Antarctic Ocean

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Marine biologists reported in the journal Deep-Sea Research II: Topical Studies in Oceanography they have discovered a whale skeleton sitting on the ocean floor near Antarctica for the first time.

Researchers said they made the discovery nearly a mile below the surface of the ocean in an undersea crater, offering some new insights into life in the sea depths. Until now, whale carcasses have never been studied in the Antarctic region.

"The planet's largest animals are also a part of the ecology of the very deep ocean, providing a rich habitat of food and shelter for deep sea animals for many years after their death," says Diva Amon, lead author of the paper from the University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science (which is based at NOC) and the Natural History Museum. "Examining the remains of this southern Minke whale gives insight into how nutrients are recycled in the ocean, which may be a globally important process in our oceans."

Dr. Jon Copley of University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science, who co-authored the paper on the research, said the only way to find a whale carcass is to navigate right over one with an underwater vehicle.

"We were just finishing a dive with the UK's remotely operated vehicle, Isis, when we glimpsed a row of pale-colored blocks in the distance, which turned out to be whale vertebrae on the seabed," said Dr Copley.

The team not only found the skeleton of the whale, but also at least nine new species of deep-sea organisms thriving on the bones, including a "bone-eating zombie worm" known as Osedax. When a whale dies, scavengers strip its flesh, and over time, other organisms colonize the skeleton and use its remaining nutrients. Bacteria break down the fats stored in whale bones, which provides food for other marine life.

"One of the great remaining mysteries of deep ocean biology is how these tiny invertebrates can spread between the isolated habitats these whale carcasses provide on the seafloor," says co-author Dr. Adrian Glover at the Natural History Museum. “Our discovery fills important gaps in this knowledge.”

The marine biologists used high-definition cameras to study the creatures living on the whale bones, and they also collected samples to analyze back on shore. They believe the skeleton may have been on the seafloor for several decades.

Scientists believe humpback whales reside in the bays along the Western Antarctic Peninsula as a result of heavy whaling in the 20th century. They say whales are beginning to contradict old theories about when they leave breeding grounds during certain time frames.