What are you but a loose-fish and a fast-fish?
July 3, 2018 9:26 AM   Subscribe

"I think a lot about how whales die. That might sound like the ranting of a whale bone chaser gone full Ahab, but my preoccupation is not with the gore of decaying flesh or exploding body cavities (although those don’t really bother me). Instead, I’m fascinated by the details of the what, where, how, and why: what happens to their carcasses, their locations when they expire, how whales perish, and the reasons for their demise. You might think that these facts are easily uncovered in the scientific literature, or in the many accounts of whaling on the high seas. But they aren’t, not for all of the whales that have washed up on the world’s shores or been hauled up by whalers." - Nick Pyenson posted by ChuraChura (11 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
What immediately comes to mind here is Ursula Vernon's short story and Hugo acceptance speech from last year, An Unexpected Honor. Her answer to "oh, I've just won the Hugo for Best Novelette" was to read this as an acceptance speech.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 9:55 AM on July 3, 2018 [9 favorites]

yes, in the 21st century there are several ton-heavy species of mammals in our planet’s oceans whose scientific basis primarily relies on a single beach-cast skull

The ocean is so terrifying oh my god.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:05 AM on July 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

In a similar vein, whale falls are amazing ecosystems, which spout up essentially out of nowhere.

There are multiple stages, and the ecosystems can continue for decades. Scientists have found that the stages occur similarly in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, suggesting that they can be stepping stones for deep sea animal dispersion.

posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 10:26 AM on July 3, 2018 [8 favorites]

Whale falls are so incredibly cool. It's amazing thinking of the sheer diversity of life that can come from one single death.
posted by sciatrix at 10:30 AM on July 3, 2018

Yeah, whale falls immediately came to mind for me too! I think it was Blue Planet that had the extensive footage of one. Super cool!

But I've never thought about how they become fossils. How cool that he found mollusks on a fossilized skull.

This, along with the idea of there being this huge number of still-unseen whales, makes me want to read more about whales -- which is fortunate, given the link to the book there. I'll have to check it out!
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:19 AM on July 3, 2018

After reading that I'll have to consider looking into Pyenson's book, because there was a lot of interesting material just in that short excerpt. I also don't think I would ever have imagined that taphonomy could be a thing, but of course it had to be, and overall I guess I'm glad there was a weird German guy who spent all of his free time drawing weeks-old porpoise corpses.
posted by Copronymus at 2:30 PM on July 3, 2018

Ah, a chance to link (again) Whale Fall by the truly amazing Rebecca Giggs!
If [the dead whales] are not washed into shallower water by the wind and tides, their massive bodies eventually sink, and simultaneously decay as they sink; they are continuously pecked at by fish, swimming crabs, amphipods and sharks attracted to the carcass. It takes a long time. Weeks, months. Later the whale will slip below the depth where epipelagic foragers can feed off it. As the pressure compounds, the whale’s body decelerates in its fall, and putrefying gases build up in its softening tissues. It drifts past fish that no longer look like anything we might call fish, but bottled fireworks, reticulated rigging and musical instruments turned inside out. The whale enters the abyssopelagic zone. No light has ever shone here, for so long as the world has had water. Purblind hagfish creep, jawless, pale as the liberated internal organs of other sea animals. The only sound is the tickly scrunch of brittle stars, splitting themselves in half and eating one another alive. Slowly. It is very cold. Hell’s analogue on earth. Hagfish rise to meet the carcass and tunnel in, lathering their burrows with mucus. They absorb whalish nutrients through their skin.

The whale body reaches a point where the buoyancy of its meat and organs is only tethered down by the force of its falling bones. Methane is released in minuscule bubbles. It scatters skin and sodden flesh below it, upon which grows a carpet of white worms waving upwards (grass on its grave). Then, sometimes, the entire whale skeleton will suddenly burst through the cloud of its carcass. For a time, the skeleton might stay hitched jerkily at the spine to its parachute of muscle; a macabre marionette dangling in the slight currents. Then it drops, falls quickly to the sea floor, into the plush cemetery of the worms. Gusts of billowing silt roll away. The mantle of the whale’s pulpier parts settles over it. Marine snow (anonymous matter, ground to a salt in the lighter layers of the sea) beats down ceaselessly. Rat-tails, devouring snails and more polychaetes appear. The bones are stripped and then fluff up with silver-white bacteria, so that it appears as if the skeleton is draped in metres of downy towelling. Years may pass, decades even, before there is nothing left except a dent that holds the dark darker.
posted by jokeefe at 3:00 PM on July 3, 2018 [9 favorites]

Are there, I wonder, similar effects from large fish? Or do their corpses not sink to the bottom? Or perhaps there is something different in their anatomy that makes them less bountiful post-mortem? Why not whale shark falls?
posted by Panjandrum at 3:24 PM on July 3, 2018

Sharks don't really have a proper skeleton; they're mostly cartilage. I'd think that'd go a long way to limiting their long-term afterlife, as it were.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 3:30 PM on July 3, 2018

I know about whalefalls, but every time I read about them I'm fascinated all over again. I suspect I'll never get a true, visceral sense of just how large a sperm whale is unless I see one with my own eyes. If the book is as good as that exerpt I can't wait.

As an aside, looking up Cerro Ballena led me to discover there used to be an aquatic sloth! Taller than a man! How did I not know this.
posted by stillnocturnal at 5:06 PM on July 3, 2018

Deep in the Ginnie Cave System, about 2 hours from Gainesville, FL. , there are a few whale vertebrae that poke out of the walls.

It's been awhile, but I believe that they are around 150ft. down.

Whalefalls can last through geologic time. Amazing creatures.
posted by pdoege at 9:31 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

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