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Elephants’ Graveyards, Whale Falls, and A New Species

Posted by: Loren Coleman on May 25th, 2007

The discovery of a new species reveals some interesting side facts.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the alleged “elephants’ graveyard,” a cryptic place where supposedly older elephants go to die.

Well, have you ever been told of the “whale fall”? According to MSNBC’s senior science editor Robin Lloyd, “Whale falls, the resting place of a dead whale, provide temporary but important nutrition boosts and habitats for deep-sea life. The flesh of the dead whale decomposes within weeks, but the bones can last anywhere from 60 to 100 years as bacteria break down the bones, releasing sulfur that aquatic creatures use to make energy.”

Now comes word that a new species has been discovered inside and on a whale fall.

Lloyd writes: “The anemone, called Anthosactis pearseae, is small, white and roughly cube-shaped. It’s about the size of a human molar and even looks like a tooth with small tentacles on one side.”

“These creatures were so cool simply because we knew that no sea anemone had ever been found on a whale fall,” Meg Daly, an anemone specialist at Ohio State University, said.

For more on this incredible find, click here on new anemone species.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


10 Responses to “Elephants’ Graveyards, Whale Falls, and A New Species”

  1. captiannemo responds:

    And I thought my job was bad!

  2. mystery_man responds:

    These whale falls are fascinating. There are indeed so many organisms that subsist off of whale carcasses that a dead whale is practically a miniature ecosystem in and of itself. Some creatures are highly specialized for living on these dead whales.

  3. mystery_man responds:

    This is too interesting to leave it at that. Some here may not realize some of the stages that these unique benthic communities go through in order to reach the “third stage” sulfur loving community.

    Within marine environments, there are many foodwebs that subsist on a drizzle of organic matter and detritus from the surface, which is known as “marine snow”. A whale is a very large piece of organic matter that can deliver up to several thousand years worth of the matter typically provided by marine snow. These whales sink down to the depths and the whole whale fall system ecosystem kicks in.

    Within a few days, scavengers such as hagfish, rattails, and sleeper sharks move in and actively remove the flesh. When the flesh is gone, the bones and surrounding sediments become infested with crustaceans, mollusks, and polychaete worms. These worms in particular appear in much higher concentrations than usual. These organisms feed directly on the organic material contained in the bones and sediments, and some are uniquely adapted specifically for whale falls.

    After around a year or so, most of the organic material that is easily digestible is gone, but yet the process continues. Bacteria work at the nutrients and fats within the bones and it is these bacteria that release hydrogen sulfur into the habitat, which in turn leads to the formation of the next stage in the whale fall community. These sulfur based creatures show a huge diversity of species and they can be pretty persistent, sometimes subsisting on a single whale carcass for years and years. I heard that there is one that is said to have gone on for at least 50 years. These organisms rely on the sulfur, which provides the basis for a self contained food web not unlike similar self contained systems found in the hydrothermal vents.

    It is believed that these whale fall communities have probably been around as long as there have been whales and it is interesting to me that such a long lasting biological niche has lasted based on essentially a transitory food source. Sooner or later, the carcass is gone and the planktonic larvae of invertebrate organisms present in the whale fall have to search for a new carcass to colonize.

    These whale falls are truly unique biological systems and testament to the myriad of amazing, sometimes bizarre ways in which life forms have adapted to the world we live in. If you have been interested in anything I’ve written here (if you are still awake :) ), then you might also be interested in the habitats around deep sea geothermal vents. These ecosystems are so unique and and thrive in such inhospitable places, that some scientists look to them as indicators of how life may survive on other worlds.

  4. mystery_man responds:

    Sorry, I meant “hydrothermal” vents at the bottom of the sea. In too much of a rush to type this stuff. One more thought, since I am obviously interested in this topic, is that this habitat is not based on photosynthesis or photosynthetic organisms like phytoplankton. Of course, the sun is to thank for providing the whale itself, but once that whale is turned over to the bacteria, the food web becomes completely sulphophilic (sulfur based). A whole plethora of niches are created in this system, such as scavengers, predators, organisms that feed on the bacteria or live off bacteria growing within their bodies. There have been up to 190 different such macroscopic benthic animals on a single whale carcass, so obviously these whale falls are a successful biological niche.

  5. U.T. Raptor responds:

    It is believed that these whale fall communities have probably been around as long as there have been whales

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re older than that, since I’m sure the carcasses of the Mesozoic’s marine reptiles provided much the same opportunities…

  6. Remus responds:

    Thank you mystery_man for the informative commentary. This is indeed facinating stuff.

    Now, are these creatures living off a fallen piece of “sunlight” or are they completely independent?

    Regarding geothermal ecosystems – Is the center of the Earth a still-hot piece of the star that originated this “solar system”?

    As I said, truly facinating.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you mystery_man!

  7. mystery_man responds:

    UT Raptor- Yes, I suppose I should reword that and say that whale falls are at least as old as whales.

    Remus- Thank you for taking an interest in this stuff. Sorry if I ramble on a bit, being a science teacher, I tend to do that. I’ll answer your questions as concisely as I can.

    About the center of the Earth, the answer to your question is no, it is not a still hot piece of star. Planetary formation is not really my field of expertise, but I will explain a bit. In a nutshell, the main theory on planetary formation is that a huge cloud of cold dust and gas was disturbed somehow by an event such as the shock-wave of a supernova or collision with another cloud. This dust cloud fragmented into smaller denser pockets of matter and collapsed under its own gravity. In the center of one pocket, or nebula, a new star formed. This star is our sun and it was still surrounded by its nebula, think of it as sort of a thin, slowly rotating disk. Atoms and molecules within this nebula combined to form larger and larger particles, which ended up as bodies called planetisimals. These became the inner, rocky terrestrial planets. The formation of the liquid mantle and geothermal heat is a complicated process, but simply put, it is not a piece of still hot star.

    As for your question on the ecology of the whale falls and hydro thermal vents, I suppose that you could say that in a way, whale falls are based on a “little piece of sunlight” as you put it. The food source that leads to the sulphur forming bacteria in this case comes from an animal that is part of a photosynthetic food chain. The biology that thrives in this habitat does not need sunlight, but they are using a sunlight based life-form for their habitat in the case of whale falls. However, deeper down in the depths of the oceans, you find the hydrothermal vent ecologies, which exist in darkness far from the reaches and influences of our sun. These systems do not even require a dead whale to thrive, needing only the mineral rich fluid spouting from the vents.

    A bacteria called Archaea are the basis of the food chain here and these bacteria are chemoautotrophs, meaning that they get their energy not from the sunlight, but directly from the minerals contained within the black smoke spewing from the thermal vents. Most animals we know of are heterotrophs, meaning that they get their energy from eating other heterotrophs or autotrophs, which are animals that get energy directly from the sun through photosynthesis. So that means that these thermal vent ecologies are not based on photosynthesis at all, but rather on chemosynthesis, meaning the whole food-chain is built upon a bacteria that subsists on minerals and inorganic matter from the vents.

    That being said, I guess you could say that even then, these bizarre ecosystems are not completely and totally independent of the need for the sun. Although the ecosystems of the hydrothermal vents do not rely directly on the sun’s power, the sun still plays a role. The bacteria require oxygen to synthesize inorganic matter in the vent fluids. Oxygen is a waste product of photosynthesis, which requires the sun’s energy.

    I find these ecosystems to be fascinating not only because they are creatures that have adapted to utilize a completely new energy source, but they have also adapted to extreme temperatures and pressure. Interestingly, some of the vent creatures live in a very thin band of habitat around the vents. If they venture too far away, the cold will kill them and if they get too close to the vents, the extreme heat will. Like I said, the vent ecologies are giving scientists things to consider about possibilities of life on other worlds. Anyway, sorry if went on too long here! :)

  8. Remus responds:

    “If they venture too far away, the cold will kill them and if they get too close… the extreme heat will.”

    Just like earth’s path around the sun.

  9. mystery_man responds:

    Remus- That’s a nice observation! I suppose it is very much like the Earth’s path around the sun, with the thermal vent being the “sun” in this case. That’s a pretty good way to explain it! I guess you could more accurately imagine it as different planets with their own specially adapted lifeforms, all orbiting at varying distances from the sun. On these vents, some of the animals have different heat or cold tolerances than others, so there are different species spread out into different bands of habitat around the vents, some of the organisms towards the fringes of the communities or near the vents can endure incredible temperature extremes. It’s fascinating stuff.

  10. MattBille responds:

    Speaking of elephants, American conservationists in the Sudan have found an isolated island in a swampy area where “hundreds” of elephants have lived without poachers or anyone else finding them out. OK, it’s a remote, poor, war-torn country, but hundreds of elephants being overlooked? What else is in that swamp?



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