Guts and Gory (Whale Edition)
This sperm whale of viral fame recently washed up on shore in the Faroe Islands (presumably, it was already dead). Weighing in at around 40 tons, a dead sperm whale can become a very serious - and very smelly - public health problem in just a couple of days. Picture a Brain Scoop episode the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
When a whale dies (or a human, or possum, or pretty much anything with guts), the bacteria that live inside them get hungry. With nothing else to consume, they literally begin to eat themselves out of house and home. Within the oxygen depleted innards of the deceased cetacean, microbes begin to munch on the blubber and tissue, turning them into a host of simpler organic chemicals. Finally, a family of microbes called anaerobic methanogens go to work. And that’s when it gets gassy.
As their name implies, these bugs thrive in juicy environments devoid of oxygen, breaking down organic molecules into methane and carbon dioxide. They reside on the ground floor of the skyscraper that is decomposition. And inside of a whale, with nowhere to go, those gases build up to explosive pressures. If that balloon of death gets punctured, well, you know what happens next.
Of course, a whale doesn’t always disappear in explosive fashion. Until just decades ago, though, no one knew precisely what happened when whales died out in the open ocean. Thanks to robotic submarines, we now know that a “whale fall”, a deeply decomposing cetacean carcass, can anchor a rich ecosystem of crustaceans and other marine invertebrates, who can munch away at the leftovers of a single whale for decades.
Radiolab did a great episode all about these deep, dark oases of decomposition. Sharon Shattuck adapted that story in a delightful cartoon.
And finally, don’t miss this fascinating look at what curious humans do with a pile of whale bones, thanks to our friends at AudioVision.
In 1970, some folks in Oregon decided to blow up a similar whale carcass, so it would be easier to clean up. Instead, this happened (turns out 20 cases of dynamite is a little much).