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No. 88: Jul-Aug 1993

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Whale falls: stepping stones across the ocean abysses

Unique biological communities flourish at widely separated "oases" on the deepsea floors, where hydrothermal vents supply the energy and chemicals necessary for life. Here are found free-living bacteria, tube worms, molluscs, and several other species that prosper without the benefit of photosynthesis. These chemosynthetic, thermal-vent communities are separated by thousands of kilometers of sea-floor "desert." Yet, the species involved are similar worldwide and must, at some time, have crossed these wide, forbidding expanses.

One possible mechanism for this mysterious dispersion came in 1987, when the research submersible Alvin chanced upon the remains of a 21-meter whale at a depth of 1,240 meters off California's coast. The whale's skeleton was covered with bacterial mats like those at the hydrothermal vents. Also sustained by the carcass were mussels, snails, and worms; all in all, a community much like those at the vents. Furthermore, many of the species partaking of the whale's energy and chemical resources are not normally found in that part of the Pacific. Subsequently, more "whale falls" with attached biological communities were found elsewhere. Calculations suggest that whale falls are more common that one might suppose -- perhaps occurring with average spacings of only 25 kilometers. They could very well be the stepping stones that allow hydrothermal vent communities to disperse across the abyssal deserts.

(Smith, Craig R.; "Whale Falls," Oceanus, 35:74, Fall 1992)

From Science Frontiers #88, JUL-AUG 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987