Bone-eating worms and alligator corpses: an education on the sea floor

Mysteries
Isopods

(Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium / YouTube)

MYSTERY WIRE — An odd experiment placing the bodies of three dead alligators on the sea floor could provide researchers with insights into how the food chain works when there just isn’t very much to eat.

The study immediately produced one big find: A newly discovered species of bone-eating worms. The Osedax appeared as a colony of brown fuzz on the carcass of an alligator placed in the “food fall” experiment. This kind of worm had never been found in the Gulf of Mexico before.

The food fall study — dropping large, dead creatures to the depths of the ocean floor — also provides a glimpse into the past, revealing creatures that have been surviving for a long time with some very unusual abilities. Take isopods, for example. They are like pill bugs, but as a big as a football. They have been known to go two years between meals.

In food falls, scientists study what will eat it, and how? How long will it take?

See Live Science for the full play-by-play.

“Studying this alligator is helping us learn more about the invertabrates of ancient oceans and how carbon from land makes its way into the deep ocean,” said Dr. Clifton Nunnally, a research scientist.

“Most of the Earth is covered by the oceans so deep that no sunlight reaches them. These places are dark and cold, but full of life,” according to Dr. Craig McClain, executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

Isopods
Isopods feast on one of the alligator corpses in a “food fall” experiment in the Gulf of Mexico. (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium / YouTube)

McClain said food fall experiments usually feature whales, sea lions, tuna, sharks, rays and even wood. Scientists wanted to see what would happen with a creature with a tough hide, and they weren’t disappointed. And as strange at it might seem, alligator food falls are probably not unusual because of hurricanes.

“Alligator falls are also a way for us to peek into the past,” according to Nunnally. “Alligators are one of the closest ways we can study the food falls of long-extinct large marine reptiles like Ichthyosaurs. Indeed, alligators and crocodile food falls may be the last remaining refuge of specialized invertabrates that were also in ancient oceans.”

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