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Whale Skeletons Home to Nine New Species

A recent Ph.D. thesis from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, reports the identification of nine new species of bristleworm, a type of worm typically found on whale skeletons. Some previously identified species of bristleworm are so specialized in eating dead whales that they would have problems surviving elsewhere. One species uses its root system to penetrate the whale bones when searching for food. Other species specialize in eating the thick layers of bacteria that quickly form around the bones. When a whale dies, it sinks to the seafloor and becomes food for an entire ecosystem. Dead whales constitute an unpredictable food source; it is impossible to know when and where a whale is going to die, and when it does, the food source does not last forever. Nevertheless, some marine species have specialized in feeding on whale cadavers. A dead whale is an enormous source of nutrients. In fact, one cadaver offers the same amount of nutrients that normally sinks from the surface to the seafloor in 2,000 years, and this is of great benefit to innumerable species: First, the meat is eaten by, for example, sharks and hagfish, then tremendous numbers of various organisms come to feast on the skeleton. Four of the new bristleworm species were found on whale cadavers placed at a depth of 125 meters in the new national park Kosterhavet off the coast of Strömstad, Sweden. The other five species feed on whale bones in the deep waters off the coast of California. The family tree of bristleworms was explored using molecular data. The DNA analyses showed that there are several so-called “cryptic” bristleworm species, meaning species that, despite appearing identical, differ very much genetically. [Press release] [PhD thesis]