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Wetlands and Aquatic Research Center - Florida
Cruise Log: 12/03/2009
Trans-Atlantic Coral Studies
But it's now becoming clear that corals in the deep-sea do indeed form elaborate reef frameworks. Over many thousands of years the skeletons of coral species like Lophelia pertusa have accumulated to form deep-sea reef complexes and giant seabed mounds. In turn the complicated architecture of these reefs and mounds provides a habitat for many other species from tiny sea stars to large fish.
This expedition is studying deep-sea coral mounds off the coast of North Carolina. Unlike many tropical corals which live with tiny symbiotic algae that help to feed them, cold-water corals live far beyond the reach of sunlight in permanent darkness. At these depths they rely on catching food with their outstretched tentacles - just as sea anemones on the shore catch small shrimp and other prey. But how does food reach these reefs? Does their diet vary seasonally? How might this affect their growth and reproduction?
Answering questions like these in a habitat thousands of feet beneath the waves and many miles from shore is very challenging. Scientists can access shallow tropical coral reefs relatively easily and can snorkel or dive to observe them or gather samples. But you can't observe deep-sea reefs and visiting them requires expensive offshore research vessels equipped with submarines or robotic 'remotely operated vehicles' (ROVs).
Fortunately even though we can't visit cold-water coral reefs repeatedly to study them we can leave equipment on the seabed to monitor and record their environment. A major objective of this cruise is to deploy two European 'landers' as part of a new collaboration between European and North American researchers across the Atlantic. By sharing equipment and expertise like this the Trans-Atlantic Coral Ecosystem Study or TRACES will allow us to really develop our understanding of cold-water corals and develop future strategies for their long-term conservation.
J Murray Roberts (Heriot-Watt University, UK)
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