|Deep in the Atlantic Ocean, about 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, scientists have found a vast coral reef. The deep-diving research submarine, called the Alvin, carried the team that made the discovery on Aug. 23.
The reef is about half a mile beneath the surface and it is about 85 miles long. This discovery changes the scientists’ conceptions of where these types of deep-sea habitats can exist. Scientists have known for quite a while that the dominant species of coral they discovered, Lophelia pertusa, exists off of the U.S. coast between Florida and North Carolina in shallow water. Finding the coral far from the shore in deep water suggests that the coral habitats could be connected to one another.
Scientists had previously worried that rising water temperatures and other environmental changes threatened coral around the world. This apparent connection between reefs indicates that the coral is more resilient than previously thought. According to Murray Roberts, a marine biologist with expertise on corals, when coral reefs are connected they have a potential for recovery if they’re damaged, while disconnected reefs could not survive damages.
The lead scientist on the expedition, Erik Cordes, reported that the site they discovered was blanketed with living corals that grew on top of a massive amount of skeletal remains of dead coral. The current coral inhabitants, defined by their whitish color and branching structure, survives by stunning prey with its stinging tentacles. The tentacles then guide the food into its stomach.
The team that discovered this surprising coral was on a 15-day expedition that started on Aug. 19 and concluded on Sept. 2. Their expedition is part of a larger, four and a half year collaborative project called the Deep Sea Exploration and Research of Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats (Deep SEARCH).