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Wetlands and Aquatic Research Center - Florida
Cruise Log: 10/11/2008
Deep-Sea Fishes Associated with Cold Water Corals and Deep Reefs
Steve W. Ross, Chief Scientist
There is considerable deep-sea reef habitat in the form of cold-water corals (hundreds of species), wrecks, and hard rocky outcrops, especially in depths from 200-1000 m. Such habitat is particularly abundant off the southeastern US and to some extent in the Gulf of Mexico. Our research over the last seven years has been focused on characterizing fish assemblages around these reefs, including documenting their use of habitat, feeding relationships, behaviors, and to what extent they form groupings. We asked questions like: Are there true reef fishes in such depths, similar to the shallow reefs? Do they occur on one habitat more than another?
Our results so far were surprising and differ from other data on cold-water coral reefs in other parts of the world. Off the southeastern US and Gulf of Mexico there are over 110 species of fishes we have seen on these reefs, more than reported elsewhere in the world. A high percentage of the fishes were new records to this region, and we have also so far identified four fish species new to science occurring on or near these reefs. This was unexpected in a part of the world that we thought was well known. In addition, many fish species seemed to be only on reef habitat and rarely, if ever, strayed to nearby non-reef bottom. Such species as slimeheads (or roughies), conger eel, some scorpionfishes, wreckfish, and some hakes (see photos) may in fact represent deep-sea reef fishes. We are also documenting the fishes on non-reef (usually soft bottoms) habitats and find that these are often different than those on the reefs.
There are reef fish communities that appear to be unique. For example, there are groupings of deep-reef fishes on deep coral banks off North Carolina (370-450 m deep) that seem to be different from those off South Carolina, Georgia, & north Florida, which are in turn different from those off south FL (600-800 m deep). The Gulf of Mexico reef fish communities that we are now surveying also differ from those in the Atlantic. We think that combinations of habitat structure and type, temperature, depth, and perhaps physical oceanography (currents) play roles in controlling these groupings. We will be investigating these and other factors as agents for structuring deep-sea fish assemblages. Our deep reef fish research will benefit from and collaborate with other components of this multi-investigator study.
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