Where do whales go when they die? Down!
'Whale fall ecologies' have been studied for at least 150 years. When a whale dies and falls to the lifeless bottom of the ocean, something amazing happens. Within a few days, animals that are not known to live at these depths begin to appear. First eels, worms, then lobsters, crabs, and even sharks. These are known as 'mobile scavengers,' and can spend up to two years eating a whale.
|10,000 year old whale bone at 15,000 feet (cite)|
Years later, the whale fall ecology is inhabited by bacteria which further degrade the whales fat and bones in the near-freezing, lightless ocean depths. And later still, a "reef stage" commences. And when I say "years later" think in the scale of millions of years! They are finding dinosaurs from the Jurassic as whale falls. Some even estimated at 20 million years old.
The amazing thing about these whale fall ecosystems (nice pics in this link!) is that they happen in a place that is supposedly lifeless. If you went looking for the eels and hagfish that initially scavenge the corpse, or the mussels and bacteria that later colonize these whale carcasses, you wouldn't find them...there's nothing there for them to eat and the environment is just all wrong for life. Yet, once a food source is introduced, opportunists appear.
Fish Heads and Chicken Poop
I keep a nice compost pile going in my backyard. It's been there, in the same spot for about 10 years now. I am still amazed every time I turn the contents with a pitchfork. Beetles, millipedes, spiders, worms, and larvae of unknown origin squiggle and squirm trying to get out of reach of the robins that keep a watchful eye. If I throw something new in the compost pile, like a bucket of fish heads, within minutes I'm seeing birds, fox, dogs, cats, and even a bear once, sniffling through and running off with scraps. After a couple hours, flies have completely covered the fish heads in eggs and within days they are a pile of writhing maggots. Weeks later, the fish heads are piles of bones filled with the insects of your nightmares. Whole ecosystems appear and disappear in a matter of days, but the microbial action seems to go one forever. What signals do they get that tells them this new food source is here? Smells, sounds, seeing other animals, and even tasting it in the air for the larger creatures. The microbes rely on signalling molecules and possibly just dumb luck to end up at the right spot.
Just 5 feet away from my compost pile, I could dig and search for days and find nothing more than a passing ant or maybe a grasshopper. But the compost pile, it's teeming with life. The things I can see with my eyes are amazing enough, I can only imagine what microscopic wonders exist.
Every spring, I take big scoops of the well-rotted plants, chicken manure, and animal remains and spread them throughout my garden where I intend to plant seeds. When the plants appear, it's very obvious which rows did not get a compost treatment, and they may require some extra fertilizer that comes from the garden supply store. Much of this magic is due to the bacterial or fungal component of the compost and others from the converted nutrients now available to the plants.
One of the most common questions I see when reading gut microbe articles is, "where do I get X bacteria?" Most times the reader will be directed to an online catalog filled with wonderful probiotics to take, but is that really required?
I do think there is value to taking probiotics, but not for rebuilding gut flora, at least not directly. The bacteria that populate your gut will appear as if by magic, just like at the whale falls and in my compost pile. But first there has to be some food for them.
Babies have it made. They get fed copious amounts of fresh breast milk and the bacteria from Mom and everyone standing around just jumps straight into baby's gut. The food babies require is a favorite food of several species of gut bacteria and these keep the baby nice and healthy while still quite helpless.
As soon as a baby is weaned is when the trouble starts. Most modern baby food contains very little fiber and is most certainly void of bacteria thanks to the wonders of modern canning methods. In the old days, Mom would chew up some roots and give the baby its first foods complete with bacteria and fiber. It's amazing, really, how we've gotten completely away from eating close to the Earth. But still, our guts adapt.
I think if we just focus on eating healthy, fresh, fruit and veggies we will get just exactly the right mix of gut bacteria we need. Add to this an attitude of not excessively sterilizing everything we touch or eat, and playing in the dirt from time to time, and those microbes will appear just like on the whale falls and compost heaps.