Whale Carcasses Become Hotspots for Ocean Life

Mysterious ecosystems that live off the bodies of dead whales may date back to the time of the dinosaurs.

In winter 2010, Adrian Glover, a marine biologist from the Natural History Museum in London, got a call from a colleague with some good news. While piloting a remotely operated vehicle to study a hydrothermal vent 4,700 feet beneath the surface of the Antarctic’s Scotia Sea, his friend had stumbled across something unexpected: the skeleton of an Antarctic minke whale. 

Rather than being a scene of death, the carcass was an oasis of life in the dark and inhospitable remote sea. Snails, worms, mollusks and white mats of bacteria were feasting on what remained of the massive mammal. Glover asked his friend to bring home a piece of this treasure. 

While inspecting the bones in his lab, he discovered nine new species of worms and bacteria. These rare, relatively unexplored, deep-sea ecosystems — lively communities that spring up around dead cetaceans that sink to the seafloor — are called whale falls, or organic falls. 

In all, only about two dozen have been found since researchers, led by Glover’s postdoc adviser Craig Smith, chanced upon the first discovery off the California coast in 1987. The 2010 Scotia Sea find was the first in the Southern Hemisphere.

Glover, now at the forefront of this postmortem science, is an expert on some of the worms that move into whale falls. These species and their whale-carcass cohort are helping marine biologists and paleontologists determine exactly how long large, dead marine animals have been hosting these rich communities of decomposers, and whether or not the whale falls of today look eerily like the organic falls of a time when prehistoric reptiles ruled the seas.