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Whale falls

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A whale fall is the unique way in which whales are not only extraordinary creatures when they are alive, but also when they die. When deceased whales fall to the ocean floor, their fatty tissues and bones provide a very unique and complex ecosystem for many living organisms. Even with death, creation has a purpose of sustaining life through it.

Discovery

This phenomenon was accidentally discovered by a group of marine biologists in 1987 on the submersible Alvin. According to news@nature.com, the captain of the submersible spotted what he thought was a fossilized dinosaur on the sea floor. Instead he found a 20 meter long skeleton of a blue whale coated with living organisms, some describe it as a live shag carpet. Ever since Alvin in 1987, these whale carcasses have been dubbed whale falls by scientists.

Process and Observation

Whale falls occur at a wide range of depths. Whales that die in shallow water ultimately sink to the bottom where they are met by hungry groups of scavengers that feed off of the carcass for months. According to Wikipedia online encyclopedia, whale falls can be found at depths exceeding 2,000 meters. At this depth fewer scavengers can be found. Some familiar organisms found here are lobsters, crabs, sea cucumbers, octopuses, clams, sleeper sharks, and even large colonies of tube worms. At these depths it takes decades and some say centuries before the carcass has been devoured. [1]

Thirty-nine of the species found on whale falls are thought to be especially suited, or even unique to this environment, essentially creating their own ecological niche. More than fifteen of the species found on whale falls have not been previously discovered by scientists.

One of the most interesting creatures found living off whale falls, is a newly observed worm called the Osedax, Latin for bone-devourer. The Osedax has no mouth, stomach or eyes, it consists of a root system used to extract the fat out of whale bones, they then rely on the bacteria in their tissues to dissolve fats and oils from bone marrow. These worms hollow out random holes in the whales bones to make the Swiss cheese look.

Scientists study whale falls by finding dead whales and submersing them into the ocean, mostly in places where it can be observed for long periods of time. This is where a lot of the information on whale falls are gleaned. It has been observed that female whales, and newborns, often die on their migratory path from the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, north to Alaska. This is because female whales and their offspring are put under a lot of stress from the process of birth. Scientists have found accumulations of whale carcasses on this particular migratory path, but it is not the only place they can be found. It is very difficult to measure how far apart they exist but it has been estimated at about 25 km. apart.

These complex communities sustain characteristics similar to those of the communities found at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. Several species that dwell here thrive without the benefits of photosynthesis. Some thrive off of chemicals, meaning they are chemo-synthetic.

References

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