Lifer After Death: Whale Fall Scavenging Successions

4/17 Life after Death: Whale Fall Scavenging Successions  –  Presented by Laura Vietti, Museum & Collections Manager, University of Wyoming

When whales die and permanently sink to the ocean floor, their carcasses deliver an extremely large pulse of organic material (20-50 tons for the average baleen whale) in an often nutrient limited environment.  In response to the organic loading of whale tissue, a variety of opportunist and specialized scavenging fauna are attracted to the decaying carrion and consume a carcass in a multi-stage prolonged process termed a whale fall. Although the timing and duration changes for each whale fall depending on the whale species, age, and ocean depth at time of death, scientists have characterized four general whale fall scavenging successions and they are known as: the mobile-scavenger stage, the opportunistic-enrichment stage, sulfophilic stage, and reef stage. Here, I summarize the general process of modern whale falls, discuss the paleoecologic significance of whale falls, and consider the implications of whale falls on the cetacean fossil record.