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Zombie worms colonized Antarctica's first-ever whale skeleton

Zombie worms and eight other previously unknown species were found living in the skeleton of a dead whale discovered off the coast of Antarctica — the first found that far south and only the sixth known 'whale fall.'

Image

This image shows the backbone of a Minke whale skeleton found on the seafloor near Antarctica, the first-ever 'whale fall' found near Antarctica. The bones were host to many species of sea-floor creatures, including nine that were previously unknown to science — including a new species of zombie worms.

Natural Environment Research Council / LiveScience

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For the first time ever, scientists say they have discovered a whale skeleton on the ocean floor near Antarctica. Resting nearly a mile below the surface, the boneyard is teeming with strange life, including at least nine new species of tiny of deep-sea creatures including one known as zombie worms, according to a new study.

Though whales naturally sink to the ocean floor when they die, it's extremely rare for scientists to come across these final resting places, known as "whale falls." Discovering one typically requires a remote-controlled undersea vehicle and some luck.

"At the moment, the only way to find a whale fall is to navigate right over one with an underwater vehicle," study researcher Jon Copley, of the University of Southampton in England, said in a statement. The team's chance encounter with a 35-foot-long (10.7 meter) spread of bones that belonged to a southern Minke whale came as they were exploring an undersea crater near the South Sandwich Islands.

"We were just finishing a dive with the U.K.'s remotely operated vehicle, Isis, when we glimpsed a row of pale-coloured blocks in the distance, which turned out to be whale vertebrae on the seabed," Copley explained.

When whales die and sink to the ocean floor, their carcasses provide nutritional boosts and habitats for deep-sea life. Though their flesh decomposes within weeks, whale bones can last anywhere from 60 to 100 years, supporting bacteria and strange creatures like zombie worms, which are mouthless, eyeless animals that feed off the skeletons.

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