We report the first study of sperm whale-fall ecosystems, based on mass sinking of whale carcasses at shelf depths in the northwest Pacific. We conducted three observations over a 2-year period on replicate sperm-whale carcasses implanted at depths of 219-254m off the southern part of Japan from July 2003 to August 2005. The study was made possible by a mass stranding of sperm whales in January 2002, and the subsequent sinking of 12 carcasses in the waters off Cape Nomamisaki. Dense aggregations of unique chemosynthesis-based fauna had formed around the whale carcasses after 18months (July 2003). The mytilid mussel Adipicola pacifica was the most abundant macrofaunal species and covered most of the exposed bone surfaces. The general composition of the fauna was similar to that of deep-water reducing habitats, but none of the species appearing in this study has been found at hydrothermal vents, cold seeps or deep-water whale falls. A new species of lancelet, which was the first record of the subphylum Cephalochordata from reducing environments, a new species of Osedax; a rarely encountered benthic ctenophore, and a rare gastropod species were discovered at this sperm whale-fall site. Benthic communities were similar across all the carcasses studied, although the body sizes of the whales were very different. The succession of epifaunal communities was relatively rapid and the sulphophilic stage was considerably shorter than that of other known whale falls. © 2007 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
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