January 26 – All’s Whale That Ends Whale

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan on January 26, 2004, shattering windows and crushing cars.

There are a few basic rules of good research. Don’t forget to turn off the Bunsen burner. Don’t drink and derive. And (most essential of all) never mess with a rotting whale.

This sperm's whale's death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters (Image courtesy USFWS)

This sperm’s whale’s death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters
(Image courtesy USFWS)

That last is important because of what happens when anything dies: things start to grow in it that shouldn’t. And those things generate methane, flavored with intestinal ketones and esters of pure yuck. Now, if people left the rotting things alone, then they’d do no real harm in the short run and end up giving you better soil in the long run (think of what a compost heap does for your garden). But they sure do smell, courtesy of all of those ketones and esters. And that means that people invariably want to put that smell as far away as possible.

So people try to blow up whales. And they try to bury whales. And they try to drive whales through the middle of downtown on a truck bed. And it never ends well.

At least, not on land. But scientists have done some interesting work with whale carcasses in the ocean and gotten amazing results. When whale carcasses wash ashore in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pulls them out to sea and sinks them where they can be watched. Over the years, they’ve learned how whale carcasses and other big messes get cleaned up on the ocean floor.

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale's carcass can provide food to other critters. (My camera)

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale’s carcass can provide food to other critters.
(My camera)

First, the big predators like sharks, crabs, and hagfish come by and strip away the meat. Then comes a type of worm known as the “bone-eating snot flower” (Osedax mucofloris ) for its diet and shape. Osedax worms only live on whale bones; more specifically, they bore into the whale bones using acid and then suck the marrow from the bones. The marrow is rich in fat, which feeds bacteria that live in the Osodex worm. The bacteria then give off wastes that the worm is able to use as food. Within a matter of months, a colony of Osodex worms can reduce a whale skeleton to a giant pile of mush, suitable for enriching the ocean floor. There are similar detritovores that live on land, from the vulgar earthworm to the sacred dung beetle. And without them, the world would be a lot messier and less pleasant to live in.

If you’d like to try find where whales congregate and maybe tell the scientists about your close encounter with a whale (living or dead {the whale, not you}), then swim on over to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Marine
Mammal Sightings Database where you can search their database of whale sightings and add yours:
http://www.cisanctuary.org/mammals/

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