Massive Coral Reef Discovered Off The Coast Of The USA

A mixture of living (pink-white) and dead (darker hues) Lophelia corals, seen here in 2005. Brooke et al. 2005/NOAA-OER

A rather sizeable coral reef has been found hiding 260 kilometers (160 miles) offshore from South Carolina. Although it's discontinuous along its expanse, according to preliminary mapping reports it’s 140 kilometers (85 miles) in length, nearly twice that of the distance between San Francisco and San Jose.

It was discovered during an ongoing underwater expeditionary mission, the Deep Sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral/Canyon/Cold Seep Habitats, or DEEP SEARCH. It's led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and features partners from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Using the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)-operated Atlantis vessel, the interdisciplinary team had hoped to shed some light on what is frankly a largely mysterious section of the Mid and South Atlantic Ocean. This reef was initially found by a series of dives using the boat’s Alvin submersible just last week, which confirmed the presence of Lophelia pertusa, a deep-water stony coral.

As it so happens, back in May and June of this year, a separate ship – NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer – had detected a rocky feature in the same part of the seafloor, stretching for tens of miles in multiple directions. It’s known that L. pertusa grows atop the skeletal remains of its fallen cousins in a process that takes perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.

A timelapse of part of an eight-hour dive, featuring coral snatching. Dan Fornari/WHOI

With that in mind, the team suspects that “it is highly probable” that those mounds and ridges were formed by corals.

“This is a huge feature,” Erik Cordes, DEEP SEARCH’s chief scientist, told the Huffington Post. “It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the U.S. East Coast for so long.”

This isn’t a tropical coral, one that lives in relatively warm waters and features polyps living with symbiotic, photosynthesizing algae. Instead, this is a cold-water coral, one that does without the algae and consists instead of larger coral polyps all by their lonesome.

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