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Alligator research prompts surprising finds in Gulf ecosystem

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Researchers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette are among a team of marine biologists that made two unexpected discoveries while studying how deep-sea creatures would react when presented with an unfamiliar – and unusual – food source.

Three dead alligators deposited at different spots on the floor of the northern Gulf of Mexico – at depths of up to 6,600 feet – proved a hearty meal for marine life, and led to the discovery of a new species of marine worms. The research project was overseen by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. LUMCON is an association of Louisiana’s higher education academic institutions that coordinates marine research projects and educational programs.

Video courtesy of LUMCON.

The scientists were curious how alligator carcasses might fare as a food source at great ocean depths, where the absence of light prevents photosynthesis. As a result, there are no plants or plant-like organisms called phytoplankton that form the base of the food web in marine systems.

Survival of larger marine life in the deep depends on dead fish, whales or bits of decaying animals or feces that descend to the sea floor from above.

Such bounty, however, can be scarce. So scientists wanted to find out how alligator carcasses might fare in the Gulf food chain at great depths. The large reptiles sometimes venture far from shore in search of food, or after being forced from coastal wetlands by weather events.

Results of the study were recently detailed in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific Journal. Dr. Craig McClain, LUMCON executive director and adjunct professor in UL Lafayette’s Department of Biology, and Dr. Clifton Nunnally, a LUMCON senior research associate, were lead authors. River Dixon, a Ph.D. Fellow at UL Lafayette, is a co-author of the paper.

“We have seen alligators and crocodiles utilizing marine habitats more in recent years...so we decided to do this experiment to investigate the impact of a large reptile carcass on deep-sea food webs and large reptile carcasses as a potential carbon pathway to the deep,” Dixon explained in an article published at Gizmodo. The website covers design, technology and science. The study was also mentioned in the New York Times.

Assumptions that the reptile’s hides would be too tough for marine life to immediately consume the animal proved wrong. Video captured by a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, showed a range of species quickly gorged on the dead alligator.

Equally surprising was the observation of brown fuzz observed on the skeleton of one of the alligators. It was later determined to be a new species from the Osedax genus – a group of bone-eating worms.

Read more about the research in the PLOS One scientific journal or in Gizmodo.