Scientists have discovered a new species of bone-eating worm during a study of the ocean’s ecosystem which involved dropping alligator carcasses into the Gulf of Mexico.
The new species of bone-eating worm, which is the first of its kind in the Gulf of Mexico and is yet to be named, was discovered when it crawled on the corpse of an alligator on the ocean floor and completely consumed its soft tissue within 51 days.
The study, published in science journal PLOS ONE in late December, was conducted by researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and was aimed at investigating ocean carbon supply.
The researchers were trying to determine how the deep sea, without sunlight, could support the high respiration rates of deep-sea benthos, the community of organisms that live on the ocean floor.
They believed that animal remains may have addressed the benthos’ carbon needs. They placed three alligator carcasses at depths of around 2 kilometers and within two days, they observed that scavengers including giant isopods began crawling on the carcasses and consuming the flesh.
The scientists also saw a new type of worm “forming dense patches across the alligator bones, particularly the vertebral column.” According to the study, the deep-sea creature belongs to the Osedax family, a genus of deep-sea boneworms, and was a new species native to the Gulf of Mexico.
Clifton Nunnally, study co-author and researcher from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said: “The deep ocean is a food desert sprinkled with food oases. Alligator carcasses are regularly found on beaches and coastlines, and after big storms or hurricanes, alligators have been seen alive 18 miles (29 kilometers) offshore.”
The researchers pointed out: “The clade to which the new species belongs is widely distributed from California to Japan to Antarctica, and there is presently no obvious biogeographic pattern to its discovery in the Gulf of Mexico.”