Proving that nature abounds with strange and mysterious creatures often undiscovered or overlooked, a new study funded by the National Science Foundation and published last month in the online journal PLOS ONE has revealed a previously unknown species of bone-munching worm that completely ravaged the carcasses of dead alligators strategically strapped to the bottom of the ocean.
In an experiment to learn more about scavengers and predators that prowled primeval seas, researchers using federal grant money stuck a trio of dead freshwater gators as bait far below the surface at 6,600 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. The goal here was to explore what would happen when an unusual food source was dumped into the eerie oceanic depths, and what sort of crustaceans, worms, and other hungry dark-dwellers might swim or crawl over for a nice gator-meat meal.
The final results were intriguing... and a little disturbing. A camera-equipped robot found that Test Gator #1 was ravaged by a giant species of pink pill-bug crustaceans (Bathynomus giganteus) within 24 hours, and gradually devoured from the inside out. Yummy!
Test Gator #2 had an even more horrific fate, and was eaten all the way down to its cranium and spinal column after just 51 days. Apparently these worms believed this food fall to be a banquet they couldn't resist. Those gnawed bones were blanketed in a mysterious brown-like fuzz, which a complete DNA analysis revealed to be a newly discovered species of bone-eating worm (genus: Osedax). This represents the only occasion where any Osedax specimen has been seen in the Gulf of Mexico.
Test Gator #3 was ripped from its weighted harness and carried away as a midnight snack by some invisible predator, most likely a mature shark.
"The deep ocean is a food desert, sprinkled with food oases," study co-author Clifton Nunnally, of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said in the explanatory video. "Some of these oases are vents in the ocean floor where chemicals come out or food falling from the ocean's surface."
So are these weird carnivorous creatures one more reason to stay out of the ocean, or possibly the next Sea Monkey fad to proudly display inside a bedroom aquarium?