Antarctic whale skeleton is rare find

March 18, 2013 at 3:06 PM
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SOUTHAMPTON, England, March 18 (UPI) -- The first whale skeleton ever found on the ocean floor near Antarctica is providing new insights into life in the sea depths, British marine biologists say.

Worldwide, only six complete whale skeletons have ever been found on the seafloor, they said.

In addition to the skeleton discovered near the South Sandwich Islands almost a mile below the surface in an undersea crater, at least nine new species of deep-sea organisms were found to be thriving on the bones, Britain's National Oceanography Center in Southampton reported Friday.

"The planet's largest animals are also a part of the ecology of the very deep ocean, providing a rich habitat of food and shelter for deep-sea animals for many years after their death," said Diva Amon of the University of Southampton's Ocean and Earth Science department.

"Examining the remains of this southern Minke whale gives insight into how nutrients are recycled in the ocean, which may be a globally important process in our oceans."

When a whale dies and sinks to the ocean floor, scavengers quickly strip its flesh, and in time other organisms colonize the skeleton and gradually use up its remaining nutrients, the researchers said.

"At the moment, the only way to find a whale fall is to navigate right over one with an underwater vehicle," Southampton researcher Jon Copley said. "We were just finishing a dive with the U.K.'s remotely operated vehicle, Isis, when we glimpsed a row of pale-colored blocks in the distance, which turned out to be whale vertebrae on the seabed."

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