See Inside February 2010

Life at the Bottom: The Prolific Afterlife of Whales

On the deep seafloor, the carcasses of the largest mammals give life to unique ecosystems

Doug Alves

On a routine expedition in 1987, oceanographers in the submersible Alvin were mapping the typically barren, nutrient-poor seafloor in the Santa Catalina Basin, off the shore of southern California. On the final dive of the trip, the scanning sonar detected a large object on the seafloor. Piercing through the abyssal darkness down at 1,240 meters, Alvin’s headlights revealed a 20-meter-long whale skeleton partly buried in sediment. On reviewing the dive video­tapes, expedition leader Craig Smith and his team saw that the skeleton was probably either a blue or a fin whale. The creature appeared to have been dead for years, but the bones and their surroundings teemed with life—wriggling worms, centimeter-size clams, little snails and limpets, and patches of white microbial mats. The skeleton was a thriving oasis in a vast, desertlike expanse.

Almost a year later Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, returned for a proper study of the skeleton site. His team described several species previously unknown to science, plus some that had been observed only in unusual environments, such as at deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

This is only a preview. Get the rest of this article now!

Select an option below:

Customer Sign In

*You must have purchased this issue or have a qualifying subscription to access this content

It has been identified that the institution you are trying to access this article from has institutional site license access to Scientific American on
Click here to access this article in its entirety through site license access.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Scientific American Mind Digital

Get 6 bi-monthly digital issues
+ 1yr of archive access for just $9.99

Hurry this offer ends soon! >


Email this Article


Next Article