Lessons from the Bone Eaters


Lessons from
the Bone Eaters

Zombie worms — they get the job done


I first heard about a whale fall during a late night Netflix session of The Blue Planet. Sedated by David Attenborough, I was startled awake at the sight of hagfish enthusiastically scavenging a whale carcass. When a whale (or any cetacean) dies and falls to the ocean floor, its decay contributes to a circular ecosystem.  


During the first stage of a whale fall, roaming scavengers such as sleeper sharks eagerly consume the soft tissues of the carcass. Next is the “enrichment opportunist stage,” which sounds like what you’d call a crafty mid-management executive. Faster than you can say Columbus Day, crustaceans and all types of macrofauna have already colonized the carcass.

What makes a whale carcass such a hot piece of real estate? The nutrient-rich sediment around it. After the colonists move away, the third sulphophilic stage begins. This stage can last for many years as bacteria break down calcium and cartilage to reach the lipids of the bones.


Nightmarish Osedax (Latin for "bone-eating") worms eagerly assist by dissolving the bones with acids and expelling hydrogen sulphide. Bacterial mats emerge, fostering your sulphide-tolerant garden variety of mussels and clams.

The concept of waste doesn't exist in nature.

And a whale fall is just one regenerative example of how death isn't the final stage. Every particle of the whale has been converted and the sea teems with life.


How do we apply the tenacity of Osedax worms to the things we possess and consume?

We can continue to recycle plastic bottles, upcycle toilet rolls, compost food scraps, and shop consciously instead of impulsively, but the responsibility/burden remains on the consumer.

The demand for competitive prices in a saturated market makes me doubt that FMCG manufacturers would consider a product's final destination. It's easier to believe that sustainability is someone else's problem once a product leaves the store shelf, just as how I gave little thought to whatever I threw away.

In recent years activists and entrepreneurs such as Lauren Singer have responded with a pledge to responsible sourcing and sustainable packaging disposal. The challenge remains to aid and spur manufacturing giants to follow suit without compromising quality or cost, and for individuals to continue the push in their own homes.