Communications Earth & Environment (2023)

DOI: 10.1038/s43247-023-01102-y


Seabed pockmarks are among the most prominent morphologic structures in the oceans. They are usually interpreted as surface manifestation of hydrocarbon fluids venting from sediments. Here we suggest an alternative hypothesis of pockmark formation based on latest multibeam echosounder data with a centimeter resolution. In the North Sea, >40,000 enigmatically shaped shallow depressions or ‘pits’ with a mean depth of 0.11 m were documented, that do not resemble known pockmark morphologies. Combining the new echosounder data with information from behavioral biology, physical oceanography, satellite remote sensing and habitat mapping, we conclude that harbor porpoises excavate sediments during benthic foraging. By grubbing the seabed, they cause sandeels to escape from the sediment and initiate the formation of seafloor pits. Time-lapse data reveals that the initially feeding pits serve as nuclei for scouring and eventually merge into larger scour-pits. With the immense number of vertebrates in the ocean, such megafauna-driven macro-bioturbation reshapes the seafloor, modulates sediment transport, and ultimately impacts associated ecosystems on a global scale.