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New Bone-Eating Life Form Discovered in Bizarre Alligator-Corpse Study

This underwater photo shows brown sea worms colonizing a dead alligator's bones in the Gulf of Mexico.
A newly discovered species of bone eating worm (seen here as brown fuzz) picks clean the bones of an underwater alligator carcass. Yum!
(Image: © McClain et al.)

Once upon a research grant, scientists strapped three dead alligators into weighted harnesses and deposited the corpses 6,600 feet (2 kilometers) down in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The first gator was overrun with giant pink crustaceans within a day and slowly eaten from the inside out. 

The second gator was devoured down to its skull and spine after 51 days. 

And the third gator? Well, nobody knows; its corpse was ripped from the harness and carried off by an unseen predator within a week, leaving behind some torn rope and unsettled sand.

This is either the least-satisfying fairytale ever, or the results of a strange new marine-food-cycle study described in the journal PLOS ONE. (Answer: It's both.)

Related: Beastly Feasts: Amazing Photos of Animals and Their Prey

The authors of the study (published Dec. 20) set out to test how carbon-hungry creatures of the deep, dark ocean would react to a food source they'd never seen before — namely, the scaly carcass of a freshwater gator (Alligator mississippiensis). 

Denizens of the deep ocean can't afford to be picky eaters; it's too dark and cold down there for plants to undergo photosynthesis, and nutrients are scarce. 

"The deep ocean is a food desert, sprinkled with food oases," study co-author Clifton Nunnally, of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said in a video about the experiment, released last April. "Some of these oases are vents in the ocean floor where chemicals come out or food falling from the ocean's surface."

Research into these "food falls" has mostly focused on large mammals, like whales, whose corpses provide a blubbery banquet for sea creatures large and small. While freshwater gator corpses can be cast into the ocean by hurricanes and other adverse weather, the ecological aftermath of such a "gator fall" has never been observed before now. Could the worms, crustaceans and other residents of the ocean floor find a way to penetrate the gators' thick hides and liberate the tasty meat within? The researchers didn't think it likely — however, they were quickly proven wrong.

When the team sent a camera-wielding robot to check on the first gator one day after laying it to rest at the bottom of the Gulf, they found the corpse being picked apart by huge, pill-bug-like isopods (Bathynomus giganteus) — some of which had already burrowed inside the gator and begun eating it from the inside. These crustaceans, the researchers noted, can store the energy from a single meal for months or years at a time, meaning that the hungry buggies scavenging the dead gator wouldn't have to work for more food for quite some time.

The second gator fared even worse. When the researchers revisited the corpse 51 days after deployment, it was picked clean, down to the bones. Those bones were caked in a mysterious brown fuzz, which a DNA analysis revealed to be a newly discovered species of bone-eating worm (genus: Osedax). This is the first time any Osedax species has been detected in the Gulf of Mexico, the researchers noted.

The final gator corpse disappeared from its harness before the researchers could spot any marine creatures eating it, but it's clear that the gator didn't wake up and swim away on its own. Considering that the creature and the harness weighed a combined 80 pounds (36 kilograms), it would have taken a large predator to chomp through the rope and haul the carcass away. A shark is the likeliest culprit, the researchers hypothesized.

So, to conclude the tale of “The Gators Who Fell Into the Sea,” many a bottom-feeding marine creature slaked its appetite on the tasty reptilian flesh — including some brown, bone-eating worms that nobody knew existed. And they all lived happily ever after, until their corpses were devoured in kind. The End.

Originally published on Live Science.

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  • Pookey
    Well that is nice work if you ca get it. Think of people paying taxes all over the country and having to decide what is the cheapest thing to eat because they are poor. Then think of money wasted on this nonsense. Hopefully no Fed or Sate taxes were wasted on this farce,
    Reply
  • Johnnyreddogg
    Pookey, lol, a little investigative science kind of let us know how much mankind is destroying the oceans! If that's not gotten under control, you might as well forget about food, everything will be dead! As a matter of fact, maybe your party could figure out how to tax corporations and pull their fair share instead of putting the burden on the average American taxpayer!
    Reply
  • Dawn Lambert
    Pookey said:
    Well that is nice work if you ca get it. Think of people paying taxes all over the country and having to decide what is the cheapest thing to eat because they are poor. Then think of money wasted on this nonsense. Hopefully no Fed or Sate taxes were wasted on this farce,
    Pookey, I hope you never have need of any medication that comes from the sea. I could well imagine one of your ancestors in the 1920s crying foul over the money Alexander Fleming spent growing bacteria in petri dishes.
    Reply
  • Johnnyreddogg
    QQqq
    Dawn Lambert said:
    Pookey, I hope you never have need of any medication that comes from the sea. I could well imagine one of your ancestors in the 1920s crying foul over the money Alexander Fleming spent growing bacteria in petri dishes.
    Well said Dawn!
    Reply
  • donald
    Johnnyreddogg said:
    Pookey, lol, a little investigative science kind of let us know how much mankind is destroying the oceans! If that's not gotten under control, you might as well forget about food, everything will be dead! As a matter of fact, maybe your party could figure out how to tax corporations and pull their fair share instead of putting the burden on the average American taxpayer!
    As a matter of fact, Johnny, total corporate profits are between 4 and 5 trillion dollars per year. Our debt now stands at about 21 trillion. So I'll do the math for you. It would take government confiscation of ALL corporate profits for the next 4 to 5 years just to pay off our current debt. We don't have a tax problem - we have a spending problem. If your party spent more time trying to actually fix things than playing political games, our country would be a lot better off.
    Reply
  • Johnnyreddogg
    Really? Well, who's been spending like drunken sailors for the past 3 years? Who's been self-dealing? Try as you might to obfuscate the reality, your party of choice is one of the most egregiously hypocritical in history. That's what happens when you sell your soul to a devious con artist flim-flam man.
    Reply
  • donald
    Johnnyreddogg said:
    Really? Well, who's been spending like drunken sailors for the past 3 years? Who's been self-dealing? Try as you might to obfuscate the reality, your party of choice is one of the most egregiously hypocritical in history. That's what happens when you sell your soul to a devious con artist flim-flam man.
    Reply
  • donald
    Yep, the budget was balanced and everything was peachy until Trump took office. I gave you facts and all you have to respond is insults. Typical liberal cowardice.
    Reply
  • AdrianT
    Pookey said:
    Well that is nice work if you ca get it. Think of people paying taxes all over the country and having to decide what is the cheapest thing to eat because they are poor. Then think of money wasted on this nonsense. Hopefully no Fed or Sate taxes were wasted on this farce,
    What a ridiculously small minded and ignorant comment on some fascinating research.
    Reply
  • Bashing Sophistry
    That was eloquent. Not.

    Totally off base with nothing to do with destroying life on Earth. Democrats have become ecoterrorists with the only agenda being holding onto power. Scare EVERYONE into voting Democrat. This study has nothing to do with politics, but like theists in an ecotheocracy - the religion pf science - you turn it into life and death struggle. I'm surprised your kind aren't bombing your opponents with cries of "eulim akbar" - science is great.
    Reply