To learn about some of the mysterious creatures that live on the bottom of the sea, scientists are making them an offer they can’t refuse: free food.
A team of researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) has been dropping dead alligators onto the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico to attract and study secretive lifeforms that call it home.
Chief among these sea bottom dwellers are giant isopods, scientifically known as Bathynomus giganteus. They’re related to the common potato bugs seen in gardens, but are an ancient ancestor. According to the Aquarium of The Pacific: “From the fossil record, it is thought that giant isopods existed more than 160 million years ago, before the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea.” LUMCON scientists estimate the species is 200 to 300 million years old.
Part of the reason these creatures have survived for so long is their ability to muddle through periods of famine. Giant isopods can go a remarkable four years without food. But they’re carnivores, and when they can find a big haul like a whale carcass, they feast to the point of “compromising their locomotive ability,” according to the aquarium. But “food falls” are incredibly rare, so it’s worth it.
The LUMCON scientists wanted to see the response to a reptilian food fall, hoping to gain a better understanding of how giant isopods respond when their food desert is suddenly home to an oasis. So they sent down euthanized alligators, which the state of Louisiana culled to control native population numbers. The isopods pounced. Within 24 hours, the giant isopods had used chemoreception to identify the location of the gators and began getting to work.
“I was surprised there were already giant isopods all over it,” Craig McCLain, the Executive Director of LUMCON, explains in the video. “I thought it would take a while for them to get the chemical cues that would allow them to sort of locate a food fall like an alligator.”
Alligators are pretty ancient themselves. The American alligator, known as Alligator mississippiensis, was common in the the Pleistocene era, which spanned from 2.5 million to 11.7 thousand years ago. While there are no records to back it up, its possible that the scientists managed to re-create what happened naturally millions of years ago.
“Before the existence of whales,” writes McClain, “perhaps large marine reptiles like ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, and plesiosaurs hosted diverse and endemic invertebrate communities on sunken carcasses.”
While giant isopods were seemingly ecstatic to devour the deceased alligator, they eat slowly. When scientists check in again in two months, they expect the carcass will be half-devoured.
Source: Science Alert