The fascinating, if morbid, process is illustrated by this excellent animated video by Sweet Fern Productions, a visual complement to a recent episode of RadioLab:
So what happens when a whale falls to the seafloor?
Large animals, like sleeper sharks and hagfish are the first to the scene, and tear into the fatty tissue with delight. Depending on the size of the whale, this “mobile scavenger” phase can last up to two years.
The next to arrive are the mussels, clams, and other opportunists who ferociously devour the leftover tissue and clean the carcass down to the bone. The sulfophillic stage begins once the skeleton is all that’s left and the bigger creatures have moved on. Special bacteria that can break down whale bones settle in for a 50 year banquet.
Whale falls create opportunities for critters big and small, and can act as stepping stones between ecosystems in the deep sea. An oasis for animals, mollusks, and bacteria, these whale fall sites support life in the deep sea for up to 75 years.
Pretty neat, huh?
Ariel Kagan is an intern for Oceana's Seafood Fraud campaign.