Scientists on board the research vessel Atlantis have discovered a spectacular coral reef about 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. A dense collection of cold-water coral populations were seen on the sea bottom about a half-mile below the ocean surface. Based on observations, researchers estimate the reef is at least 85 miles long.
A coral reef is a large community of live organisms that live in one location. The area explored by the scientists had huge amounts of living corals growing atop the enormous, skeletal remains of dead corals. It is believed that the reef has been in existence for thousands of years.
The researchers used a human-operated submersible called Alvin to explore the reef and collect coral samples during the exploration. One of the coral species collected was Lophelia pertusa, a branching, whitish coral that prefers cold waters. L. pertusa is atypical among corals as it uses stinging tentacles to stun its prey and guide food into its stomach instead of relying on symbiotic algae to survive. Copious amounts of the coral was found at the site.
The expedition was led by Erik Cordes, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Temple University in Philadelphia. The researchers say that the discovery will keep members of the team “busy for months, and even years, to come.” They will continue exploring the area until Sept. 2.
The 15-day expedition is part of a larger collaborative project known as the Deep Sea Exploration and Research of Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats (Deep SEARCH), slated to last four and a half years. The goal of the project is to collect critical data on the distribution of ecosystems and wildlife of the sea bottom to identify resources that must be protected. The project researchers include scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the US Geological Survey.