New Expedition to Study Mysterious Deep-Sea Corals

Stefan Lovgren in Boston, Massachusetts
for National Geographic News
February 19, 2008

Some of Earth's most mysterious organisms—ancient corals that can be found 9,186 feet (2,800 meters) below the ocean's surface—will be the subject of an ambitious new research program, scientists have announced.

The Trans-Atlantic Coral Ecosystem Study, or TRACES, was officially launched last Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Massachusetts.

It will be the first ocean-scale study of the poorly understood deep-sea corals, whose growth patterns may fill large gaps in researchers' knowledge of climate and the evolution of marine creatures.

Recent studies have shown some living deep-sea corals to be up to 5,000 years old, making them a detailed historical archive of changing sea conditions and climates, researchers say.

At the meeting scientists also revealed new results showing that some deep-sea corals repeatedly invaded the shallow waters that house the most familiar coral species.

The findings represent the first known invasion from deep depths into shallow areas, revising many long-held assumptions about the evolution of marine organisms.

But experts warned that bottom trawling—the practice of dragging heavy nets across the sea floor—is causing widespread destruction of these ancient animals, with as many as half of the coral reefs found off the Norwegian coast showing damage from such fishing activities.

(Related: "Trawlers Destroying Deep-Sea Reefs, Scientists Say" [February 19, 2004].)

"We clearly need ways of managing deep-sea ecosystems, and maybe [putting] in areas that are closed to trawling if they contain a lot of vulnerable habitats," said TRACES project leader Murray Roberts, a marine biologist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, Scotland.

Deep-Sea Gardens

Corals are often associated with shallow tropical seas, but two-thirds of the more than 5,000 known coral species are found in the cold, deep sea. There are 1,300 such coral species in the northeast Atlantic alone.

The corals can occur as small colonies or form large reefs and giant mounds up to 1,000 feet (300 meters) high.

Continued on Next Page >>


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