September 10, 2018

By Priya Shukla

Scientists recently discovered an 86-mile-wide deep-sea coral reef off the coast of South Carolina as part of the “Deep Search 2018″ expedition. These expansive mounds have likely existed for hundreds of thousands of years (since the arrival of modern humans), with new corals growing atop the skeletal debris of older ones. While four different coral species were collected at this site, the “stony” coral, Lophelia pertusa, was the dominant species.

With their complex, three-dimensional structure, these corals create a protective habitat for a wide variety of marine creatures and are considered biodiversity hotspots. Deep-sea corals also assist in nutrient cycling throughout the world’s oceans. To fully understand the extent to which these corals support sea life, chief scientist Eric Cordes suggested that it is critical to continue searching for deep-sea corals and incorporate these sensitive habitats into management efforts.

Shortly after these reefs were found, Dr. Sandra Brooke, a coral ecologist at Florida State University, found additional corals 1.5 miles away from the site discovered near South Carolina. With deep water corals becoming increasingly vulnerable to bleaching as the ocean warms, the immensity of this reef may offer a reprieve to deep-sea corals because connected reefs tend to be more resilient to environmental stressors.

This discovery comes on the heels of the Trump Administration’s proposal to open up 90% of the U.S. Coast to oil exploration. It is unclear if other critical habitats or unknown seafloor structures exist in other unexplored parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, where oil exploration may occur (for example, nearly 1,000 deep-sea methane seeps were recently discovered near the Pacific Northwest United States). Therefore, identifying whether other critical habitats exist in areas vulnerable to oil-related activities is necessary for protecting these habitats and the ocean organisms that depend on them.

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