In one of the first experiments of its kind, scientists placed a dead alligator at the bottom of the ocean to see which fish will eat it. And the researchers were in for a surprise.
The scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) dropped two alligator carcasses at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in February to understand how land animals impact ocean food webs.
Video footage captured at a depth of 6,650 feet show that within 18 hours of dropping the first alligator, at least a dozen giant isopods — football-sized crustaceans that resemble purply-pink pill bugs — flocked to feast on the dead animal.
“Giant isopods are like deep sea vultures,” Clifton Nunnally, a research associate on the LUMCON team, told Atlas Obscura. “They’re just hanging around, waiting for something big to fall down.”
And although the researchers did expect the isopods to descend on the reptilian buffet, they were surprised by their speed. Scavengers generally make their way to a “food fall,” in which a deceased aquatic animal from above settle on the ocean floor, within a few days, so 18 hours seemed fast, the researchers told Atlas Obscura.
The isopods, which were also joined by other scavengers, including amphipods and grenadiers, tore into the alligators’ tough flesh faster than expected. They even managed to crawl inside the alligator, and eat the carcass from the inside out.
“We had assumed given the tough hide of the alligator it might take a while for deep-sea animals to access the soft tissue,” Craig McClain, a marine biologist and executive director of the LUMCON told the Houston Chronicle. “But the giant isopods seemed to find soft spots in the hide on the abdomen and in the armpits.”
Aside from seeing which sea creatures will eat the alligator, the researchers aim to shed light on deep-sea food webs more generally, including food webs that included now-extinct reptiles that lived in ancient oceans.
Large marine reptiles may have been a big part of the deep-sea food chain during the time of dinosaurs, McClain told the Houston Chronicle.
“When these prehistoric sea monsters died and fell to the seafloor, they may have served as the host for a whole community of deep-sea animals,” McClain said. “Do modern alligator and crocodiles serve as the last remaining refuges for these faunas?”
The isopods ate the alligator, which was acquired from the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, to stupefaction. The researchers said crustaceans have an astounding ability to store energy and can go without eating for months (an isopod at an aquarium in Japan managed to live for five years without food).
The researchers will check on the alligator carcasses in a couple of months to see what’s left. They expect to see smaller animals feast on remaining flesh and brittle stars and tiny fish picking away at the remains. McClain and Nunnally also plan to collect the alligators’ ribs to determine if any sea creatures — including bone-eating worms, never before seen in this part of the world — will eat the bones.
According to McClain, the experiment also hopes to shed light in a part of the planet that remains unexplored and still “shrouded in mystery.” Indeed, more than 80 percent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored and unmapped, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As McClain told the Houston Chronicle, “Every sample of life we bring from the abyss contains a cornucopia of species never seen by humans before and unknown to science.”
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