Highlands & Islands

Scottish deep sea 'zombie worms' whale study suggested

Beached whale
Image caption Dr Higgs suggested dead stranded whales could be returned to the deep sea and left for the worms to find

Scientists are planning to conduct what would be the first study in UK deep waters of creatures known as "zombie worms" that eat bones of dead whales.

The research would involve sinking a whale carcass, potentially at a location off the coast of Scotland.

Similar work has been done in Sweden, Japan and off California in the US.

Dr Nick Higgs, a researcher at the Natural History Museum, and Dr Kim Last, of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, hope to do the study.

The worms from the Osedax genus were only discovered in 2004.

New discoveries of the creatures are still being made. Scientists are also trying to better understand how the worms find dead whales.

The worms do not have a mouth or gut and use root-like tissue to bore into and eat bones.

Large marine mammals that die and sink to sea floors in deep water become a food source for various forms of wildlife.

Image caption New discoveries of the deep sea worms are still being made

Called whale-fall, the layers of blubber, internal organs and bones can provide sustenance for many years.

Studies of what happens to dead whales, dolphins and porpoises have been done in the UK, but only in shallow water where the worms have not yet been found.

Dr Higgs, a researcher in the deep sea who works from London, and Oban-based marine chronobiology investigator Dr Last, have hopes of carrying out the UK's first deep water investigation.

It would involve sinking a whale that has died in a stranding.

Dr Higgs said it was possible this could be done off Scotland, and with cameras to monitor what happens to the animal.

Deliberately sinking a dead whale is done for scientific studies because it is so rare to find the carcasses at sea.

Dr Higgs said: "We have a good idea of how to do it. It's pretty straight-forward really.

"You just have to make sure the carcass doesn't bloat up too much and then attach a large amount of weight to the back of it and let it sink."

The scientist said sinking stranded whales could be an alternative to cutting them up and incinerating the animals.

Scottish local authorities have spent between £10,000 and £50,000 dealing with dead sperm and pilot whales in this way.

Dr Higgs said: "From what I can gather, sinking would be in order of £10,000 to £15,000.

"I am not saying we should sink every whale that washes up on UK shores, but in some cases it could be cheaper than a disposal costing £50,000 and would also help science."

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