Not all monsters of the deep involve sharp teeth and bone crushing jaws.
In a creepy video recorded one-and-a-quarter miles deep in the Gulf of Mexico, a gang of football-sized, flesh-eating isopods — crustaceans much like roly polies or pill bugs — are seen going to town on an alligator many times their size.
Researchers Craig McClain and Clifton Nunnally of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, who produced the footage, say it may have been months or years since these aquatic creepy crawlies have eaten.
Once a hefty hunk of “foodfall” settles on the ocean floor, these lobster cousins use their formidable mandibles to break through the gator’s scaly armour to feed on its juicy muscle.
“They have this amazing ability to gorge themselves, store that energy and then basically not have another meal for months to years afterwards,” McClain says.
The gator carcass was actually donated to LUMCON’s research team by the state of Louisiana, where the animals were humanely euthanized as part of their program to curb alligator populations. They’re particularly interested in alligator foodfall because they are the closest thing on earth today to ancient marine reptiles. Isopods have ancestors dating back 300 million years.
Scientists believe that some of the creatures who feed on today’s gators also existed millions of years ago.
It took less than a day for these bottom feeders to munch halfway through the alligator’s abdomen. Some get so stuffed they can hardly move after their meal.
“They’ll eat so much that they basically become immobile or stupefied in their actions, and so that may just be the fact that they’ve gorged themselves so much in an effort to get this rare resource that they’ve actually, you know, inhibited themselves from proper locomotion,” says Nunnally.
Once the isopods have their fill, other scavengers will finish off the decomposing remains.