Bone-Eater of the Dark Depths

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When a whale dies, its body often sinks to the bottom of the sea. From death comes life – an entire ecosystem blooms from the resource-rich remains.

Scavenger fish (sharks and hagfish), as well as crabs, shrimp, and octopuses, consume the flesh, leaving only a massive skeleton behind. Even the bones are devoured in this cold, dark place. Osedax worms, a.k.a. bone-eating or zombie worms, slowly dissolve and ingest the protein- and fat-rich bone. Very slowly… for up to a century. The worms grow root-like structures into the bone’s marrow. These “roots” contain symbiotic bacteria that help digest the nutrients.

Descriptions of bone-eating worms were first published just 15 years ago. Since then, more than a dozen species of bone-eating worms have been identified from every ocean. Originally, researchers thought that the worms evolved with whales but more fossil evidence indicates that Osedax were likely present on the bones of marine reptiles at least 50 million years earlier. (1)

The whale-fall ecosystem was recently captured on video (the fuzzy reddish-brown coating on the bones are large numbers of the worms).

  1. Danise, S. and N.D. Higgs. 2015. Bone-eating Osedax worms lived on Mesozoic marine reptile deadfalls. Royal Society Biology Letters. 11(4)

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