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Whale carcass yields bone-devouring worms

cological equivalent of dandelions-a weedy species that grows rapidly, makes lots of eggs, and disperses far and wide." This strategy makes sense considering that these worms can only live on dead whales. After a whale skeleton has been consumed, all the worms at that site will die off. Before this happens, they must release enough eggs or larvae so that some tiny proportion will be transported by the ocean currents until they can find and colonize another whale carcass.

Rouse notes that, "Because of the highly unusual anatomy of the females, at first we were at a loss to know what type of animal Osedax was." But after examining key portions of the worms' DNA, the researchers determined that the whale-fall worms are closely related to the large tube worms found at deep-sea hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. Both types of worms obtain nutrition with the help of symbiotic bacteria.

Further analysis of the DNA data yielded some surprising results. For example, after looking at the amount of variability in the worms' mitochondrial DNA (which is assumed to change at a relatively constant rate over time) they concluded that the two new worm species' most recent common ancestor lived roughly 42 million years ago, about the same time whales themselves first evolved. The worms' genetic diversity also suggests that they are part of an actively breeding population that includes hundreds of thousands of individuals-a population that has presumably been hidden from human eyes in the vastness of the deep ocean. This further implies that, as Vrijenhoek put it, "there must be a lot of dead whales out there."

After studying the dead whale in Monterey Bay for over a year and half, Vrijenhoek and Goffredi have come to the conclusion that the two new worm species are but the tip of the iceberg (or perhaps the tip of the whale's tail). Whale carcasses-or whale falls, as they are called-represent a massive input of food into
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Contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett
kfb@mbari.org
831-775-1835
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
29-Jul-2004


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