With a snail’s help a fish transitions from dying to dead

Like manna from heaven, food from above rains on the deep. Those productive shallow waters full of light, photosynthesis, and food are an extreme contrast to their dark abyssal brethren. With such commodities as nourishment afforded by light absent, any carbon falling to the deep is vital. And more importantly, carbon is never wasted.

A tragic event has befallen a rattail fish at 1,100 meters. The fish is alive, barely, and visibly quivering. Not able to swim any longer it falls to seafloor, continuing to tremble, and slowly dies for another hour.

When the fish first arrives to the seafloor, whelks are rare. However the chemical cue of the dying fish soon lures the snails from afar. During the first hour only two were present. Within four hours, moving slowly (a meter an hour) as they creep along the muddy seafloor, 78 whelks swarm the fish. The whelks are here to speed up the fish’s death. The hungry scavenging snails, cannot wait for pleasantries, like a fish dying before they consume it. There is no predicting when the next food fall will arrive to their part of the seafloor.

Within eight hours, the fish transitions from dying to dead, not taken by the original calamity but by a pack of flesh hungry snails. In the abyss, a dwindling life begets continued life even if the path is not attractive.

Based on Aguzzi J, Jamieson AJ, Fujii T, Sbragaglia V, Costa C, Menesatti P, Fujiwara Y (2012) Shifting feeding behaviour of deep-sea buccinid gastropods at natural and simulated food falls. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 458:247-253

Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/), connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

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