Last updated 10:45AM ET
October 19, 2017
Arts & Culture
Arts & Culture
Commentary from Elia Herman
(pre) -
What do fire engines, dead whales, and your laundry have in common? The answer: Oceanic biodiversity. If your brow is furrowed, let me explain... and please be patient.
My father's favorite joke begins: Why are fire engines red?
Humoring him, I ask, Why?
Without missing a beat, he begins: Fire engines have eight wheels and four men. Eight and four is twelve. There are twelve inches in a foot. A foot is a ruler. Queen Elizabeth is a ruler.
He stops momentarily to make sure I'm following, takes a breath, and then whizzes on. Queen Elizabeth is also a ship. Ships sail on seas. Seas have fishes. Fishes have fins.
One more breath.
The Finns are always fighting the Russians. The Russians are Red. Fire engines are always rushin'. Therefore . . . fire engines are red! The last part is always triumphant.
Though I've heard it a hundred times, the fire engine's path across the sea and through Europe always gives me pause. Silly as it is, it's perfectly crafted. Each piece builds upon the other; remove one block and the whole thing crumbles into the truly nonsensical.
Nature seems to work in much the same way. When a whale dies at sea, its body eventually drifts down to the bottom of the ocean where it begins the process of decomposition and disintegration. Scientists call this phenomenon whale fall, and much like the journey of the fire truck, whale fall is a seamless integration of events. However, in the case of a whale carcass, its ultimate triumph is the biodiversity of the deep sea (and possibly a new cold-water cleaning detergent more on this later).
When the dead whale settles on the seafloor, 10-foot-long bottom feeders called sleeper sharks, somewhat hideous creatures resembling the offspring of an eel and a slug known as hagfish, and crabs visit the fallen giant to feast on its flesh. After several months of hard work, marine worms and crustaceans follow, making their home on the freshly-cleaned bones.
During the last part of the whale's journey, the leviathan hosts the greatest conglomeration of critters in the deep sea. In fact, Craig Smith and colleagues, at the University of Hawaii, have documented over 400 different whale-fall species, twenty-one of which have never been observed anywhere but on the bottom of the ocean, munching on a whale skeleton.
One such specimen is the bone-eating snot flower, also called a zombie worm (though it looks more like a tiny, pink feather duster). Just a few centimeters long, the worm fixes itself to whale bone, gathering oxygen from the water and food from the oil of the decaying whale.
Neighboring the snot flower on the sunken carcass is a form of bacteria that provides us landlubbers with surprising benefits. Whale-fall bacteria thrive at low temperatures, which has lead one biotech firm to investigate their use in . . . here's where the fire engine turns red . . . cold-water soaps, where these single-celled organisms can fight stains and reduce energy bills.
Ocean health, and perhaps our clean clothes, depends on every link in the whale-fall chain. The whale, sharks, fish, crustaceans, worms, and bacteria are all riding the fire truck, and it is their very diversity what scientists call biodiversity that makes the engine go.

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