Off the coast of Italy, scientists have discovered the country’s first known coral reef. Although splashed with color and full of marine life, this strange reef is like very few others on Earth.
In a new study published this month in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of Bari Aldo Moro have chronicled the discovery of Italy’s first reef. The "unique" reef stretches for 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) along the Italian coast in the Adriatic Sea, passing by the popular tourist spot of Monopoli, in Puglia.
The reef is at a depth of between 30-55 meters (98-180 feet) and is what’s known as a mesophotic ecosystem, meaning it exists in low light conditions.
Most coral reefs, especially the dazzlingly colored reefs in the sun-soaked tropics, obtain their energy and nutrients through a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic zooxanthellae (algae), which produce their “food” using light. However, in the murky depths of the Adriatic Sea, Italy's reef doesn't have this luxury.
Instead, the researchers say the coral reef is comprised of “non-symbiotic scleractinians” – known as stony corals – that obtain most of their nutrition from suspended organic matter floating around the sea, much like other coral reefs found in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This also explains why the Italian reef is not quite as vibrantly colored as the Great Barrier Reef and other tropical reefs, where the corals’ pigment comes from the algae that live inside it (thus when water gets too warm, corals expel the algae, resulting in a leaching of color, or "bleaching").
"In the case of the Maldives or Australian barriers, the symbiotic processes between the madrepores (stony corals that form the reefs) are facilitated by light,” Professor Guiseppe Corriero, who led the research, told La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno.
“Our barrier lives in dim light and therefore the madrepores constitute these imposing structures of calcium carbonate with the absence of algae.”
Nonetheless, it's still a remarkable sight.
Due to its unusual features, the researchers argue that the reef should be considered a “unique environment," although it does share similarities with other reefs in the Red Sea.
The world’s coral reefs are under huge threat, primarily due to pollution and coral bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures. In previous decades, coral bleaching events occurred once every 25 years or so. Studies in recent years have shown that over 100 coral reefs spread across the globe are now experiencing these events every 5.9 years
Due to the fragility of these ecosystems, as well as their value as biodiversity hotspots, Italy’s Regional Council of Puglia is planning on creating a new marine protected area off the coast of Monopoli where the new reef was discovered.