Have you ever been sitting on your couch, staring out the window, thinking vague thoughts about vague things and wondered randomly to yourself, “I wonder what would happen if someone took a dead alligator and sank it to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico?” No? I haven’t, either. But after watching the video Louisiana University’s Marine Consortium recently released showing just that, I wonder why I haven’t.
In the experiment, LUMCON scientists Craig McClain, Clifton Nunnally, and River Dixon got an alligator (donated by the state of Louisiana after being humanely euthanized as part of a management program focused on helping American alligator populations) and dropped it a mile down. They’re interested in a variety of things, including deep-sea food webs and how materials created on land sustain and impact them.
Those ghastly pink things swarming it are giant isopods, which are actually part of the wood bug family. Growing up to 30 inches and weighing up to 3.7 pounds (seriously), the giant isopod strolls around under the sea doing nothing but looking for stuff to eat. And just like a pill bug, they can curl up into a ball when threatened, using their tough outer shell as a shield. It’s just that when they curl up, they’re the size of a soccer ball, or maybe an armadillo with gills.
While giant isopods are usually scavengers, because of where they live, they’ll settle for anything. They hang out pretty deep: somewhere between 500 and 8,000 feet, if not deeper. If you’re a sea cucumber, you better watch your back (or top, or whatever sea cucumbers have). Giant isopods go after sponges, nematodes, and even slower moving live fish if they can get them. Since they live in the deep ocean, they really have to make do with whatever they can get, like a starving man in a gigantic dumpster. Only unlike the starving man, in one of evolution’s smartest moves, giant isopods can go as long as FIVE YEARS without eating. But when food is around, watch out. They’ll eat until they literally can’t move, then just sit around digesting and being gigantic until they’ve digested enough to move again. And chances are after a meal like the one LUMCON researchers gave them, they’re not going to be moving for a while.