A new experiment to find out what kind of life exists on the seafloor has raised the possibility of a truly gigantic animal lurking in the dark depths of the ocean. Is it a huge shark or a giant squid? Or something we don’t even have a name for?
The Great Gator Experiment involved sinking three alligator corpses to the bottom of the ocean to see what happens to them. Image credit: Lumcon
So far, we have only explored about 5 percent of earth’s oceans, which amount to 70 percent of our planet’s surface. The depths of sea hide secrets which humans have forever been curious about.
To get deeper insights into what’s going on the ocean floor, marine biologists Craig McClain and Clifton Nunnally from Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, carried out an experiment, known as the Great Gator Experiment, and the results are interesting, to say the least.
The researchers sank a buffet for mysterious seafloor creatures which included three dead alligators, with weights tied to them. They were curious to see how their corpses would be consumed by creatures lurking on the seafloor.
“To explore the food web deep inside the sea, we placed three dead alligators at least 6,600 feet down in the Gulf of Mexico for 51 days,” said Clifton Nunnally from Louisiana University.
After sinking to the unexplored depths of the ocean, the gators hit the seafloor and settled among the disturbed dust.
What came next was quite shocking.
The first gator was consumed within 24 hours of hitting the ocean floor. It was immediately welcomed by giant isopods, which according to Nunnally, are like deep-sea vultures. Then, other scavengers like amphipods, grenadiers and some mysterious, unidentifiable black fish joined the feast. The isopods ripped apart the reptile faster than the scientists expected, eating it inside out.
The second alligator was eaten during a longer period of time. After 51 days, all that remained of it was its skeleton, which had a reddish hue.
“That one genuinely surprised us. There was not even a single scale or scute left on the carcass,” McClain told Atlas Obscura. The team then sent the skeleton to Greg Rouse, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, for further scrutiny.
Rouse found that the gator had been broken down to shackles of bone by a new species of bone-eating worms in the Osedax genus. This was the first time that an Osedax member was found in the Gulf of Mexico, according to McClain. The researchers then compared the newly obtained DNA to those of the already known Osedax species, and realized they had found a novel species of the genus.
Also known as zombie worms, Osedax bore into the bones of whale carcasses to reach enclosed lipids, on which they rely for sustenance. Photo: Frank Lindecke
Despite the surprising discovery of a new Osedax species, it was the third alligator that left the scientists the most baffled. When visiting the site where the third gator was dropped, they could only see a massive depression in the sand – the animal had vanished altogether. The team then searched the surrounding area but they found no trace of the alligator. However, they did find the weight attached to the gator, which lay about 10 meters away from the site.
What this means is that the predator that swept away the gator was huge enough to devour it whole and drag the attached weight for some distance. The team suspects the creature to be either a giant squid or a massive shark waiting to be discovered. “I have yet to find a squid that could consume a whole alligator, and I don’t want to be on the ship if we ever discover it.”
The two researchers were shocked about the results, and also very satisfied with the experiment. They plan to do a whale fall next time.
The researchers are planning to sink a dead whale next time and see what happens. Photo: Ryan Somma
Will the mysterious carnivore turn out to be the Kraken – a legendary sea monster of gigantic size and cephalopod-like appearance in Scandinavian folklore? Or something else we have never even thought of? Well, we can’t wait to find out.