Swedish Robot Pilot Discovers Rare Cold Water Coral Ecosystem

Photo by Tomas Lundälv, Sven Lovén Centre, University of Gothenburg, via Science Daily.

Shock waves rippled through the cold water coral ecosystem community this week with the news that a very rare ecosystem has been discovered in a coral wall 50 to 60 meters tall and 190 kilometers long, at about 600 meters depth in the Atlantic Ocean off of Mauritania in Northern Africa.

It’s the first time an ecosystem like this has been discovered this far south.

According to Science Daily, University of Gothenburg researcher Tomas Lundälv piloted a robot vessel to a depth of 615 meters from the RV Maria S. Merian, Germany’s most modern research ship. Though Lundälv and his associate Professor André Freiwald knew there was a very large cold water coral bank there, they had no idea of the extent of the formation.

[Lundälv] found himself via a video link in the middle of a flourishing coral ecosystem. André Freiwald reports on a heavily calcified Lophelia coral with orange-red polyps and gorgonias, which, beside the reef-building stony corals, formed imposing octocoral gardens in the dark and otherwise inaccessible habitat. According to the excited expedition report, giant clams also hang on the coral galleries, in exactly the same way as is found elsewhere in Norwegian reef systems.

Whoa!!! Look, if you’re not a diver or a marine biologist, this might seem a bit dense. Personally, I’m with my cat in asserting that if land mammals were meant to go paddle around in the wet stuff, the Spaghetti Monster would have given us arms and legs, not to mention hands, feet and/or paws. To me, people who jump into the big blue with a regulator and an upbeat attitude are a special kind of mad, I tell you, mad, but I also concede that they have brass ones the size of beach balls — and more importantly, they take some pretty pictures.

Speaking of which, if you like said pretty pictures of thoroughly mind-bending biological structures, I’ll get to that when I break out the Google-Fu. But first…

Such impressive ecosystems were previously only known above all from regions of the sea located much further to the north, around Scandinavia and in the Irish Sea. Unlike their tropical relatives, found by snorkellers and scuba divers in the illuminated and significantly warmer surface waters, cold water corals live at a cold 13° in the dark and nutrient-rich deep sea region below 200 m. André Freiwald was aware of a loose cold water coral reef which extends to southern regions. Until now, however, scientists had only found fossil coral reef structures on the seafloor off the coast of Gibraltar and Morocco.

[Freiwald writes] that…among other things, the scientists found the powerful carrier crab Paromola here, and on diving through the rocky landscape, also found the giant deep sea oyster Neopycnodonte, also never before observed so far to the south. These giant oysters form thick populations and can be described as Methuselahs among animals, with some individuals living for over 500 years.


Science Daily was reprinting an article from the (German) Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, via AlphaGalileo.

And like I said, if you followed all that, mazel tov.

If you didn’t, you, like me, are slightly out of luck gawping at the wonder of it all, because very little of the 600-m ecosystem off Mauritania is online yet. And in case you’re a little unclear on the whole concept of diving, most coral ecosystems tend to be photographed in warmer climes, because the North Sea is COLD. There’s also a reason when scientists go that deep, they send robots — because robots are usually too drunk to argue.

So since you can’t see the new African system…here’s some similar structures worldwide in, like, Billions and Billions of pixels:

Cold water coral in general (this formation is off Chile)

Lophelia Coral

Gorgonian, aka Sea Fan “an order of sessile colonial cnidarian” — no shit!! — shown here with an orange elephant-ear sponge in the foreground.

Extensive article on reefs.org on reef-building stony corals.

An interactive “dive” into Lophelia habitats.

Giant clam photographed in Fiji.

Greenpeace video on Norwegian coldwater coral reefs.

Article on Scandinavian coral reefs at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

Article on cold water coral in Irish waters at Ecological Consultancy Services Limited (EcoServe).

The carrier crab Paromola at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Giant Thorny Oyster in the Great Barrier Reef. No, this isn’t the giant deep sea oyster Neopycnodonte…but man, it’s cool.

…and lastly, No, this isn’t the right kind of carrier crab. Unless by “right kind,” you  mean “the right kind of AWESOME.”

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