Deep Sea Coral Gardens Discovered Near Greenland For The First Time

Coral garden habitat with a high diversity of animals including sponges, anemones and feather stars at 550m below the surface. ZSL/GINR

While the Beatles were busy lusting after an Octopus’s Garden, it seems Greenland was already on the case as new research has discovered deep-sea gardens boasting beautiful soft corals. The discovery, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, is the first time this kind of habitat has been identified in the waters of west Greenland, and has big implications for fishing practices in the area.

The soft coral gardens were discovered at 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the surface where the pressure is 50 times greater than at sea-level (maybe not the best place to be “resting our head, on the seabed” after all). Despite these seemingly oppressive conditions, a diverse range of cauliflower corals, feather stars, sponges, anemones, and brittle stars have been thriving in complex and delicate ecosystems.

"Coral gardens are characterized by collections of one or more species (typically of non-reef forming coral), that sit on a wide range of hard and soft bottom habitats, from rock to sand, and support a diversity of fauna,” said Dr Chris Yesson from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in a statement. “There is considerable diversity among coral garden communities, which have previously been observed in areas such as northwest and southeast Iceland."

The team's improvised video camera sled for capturing deep-sea images. Stephen Long

Making discoveries at depths such as this require specialist equipment such as Remote Operating Vehicle-mounted deep-sea cameras, but the scientists from University College London, ZSL (both UK), and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources found their own way to study the murky depths. They created a low-cost video sled that used a GoPro video camera, lights, and lasers contained in special pressure housings. They lowered the video sled, which was around the size of a Mini Cooper, at various locations across the seafloor taking 15-minute videos that were used to extract stills. They ended up with 1,239 images to work from.

The extensive portfolio revealed new information on one of the planet’s largest marine habitats, with the researchers successfully gathering data at a depth of 1,500 meters below sea level in some areas. A final total of 44,035 annotations detailing observed fauna showed that the most abundant species were anemones and cauliflower corals, with some parts having a maximum of 9.36 corals stuffed into a single square meter. Their analyses enabled them to identify a 486 kilometer-square (187.6 square miles) area, which they hope will be recognized as a Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem under United Nations guidelines, granting it protection from potentially harmful fishing practices.

One of the videos revealed this area with a high density of anemones. ZSL/GINR

"Greenland's seafloor is virtually unexplored, although we know it is inhabited by more than 2,000 different species together contributing to complex and diverse habitats, and to the functioning of the marine ecosystem,” said Dr Martin Blicher of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in a statement. “Despite knowing so little about these seafloor habitats, the Greenlandic economy depends on a small number of fisheries which trawl the seabed. We hope that studies like this will increase our understanding of ecological relationships and contribute to sustainable fisheries management."


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