Scientists have long believed that the waters of the Central and Northeast Pacific Ocean were inhospitable to deep-sea scleractinian coral, but a Florida State University professor’s discovery of an odd chain of reefs suggests there are mysteries about the development and durability of coral colonies yet to be uncovered.
Associate Professor of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science Amy Baco-Taylor, in collaboration with a team from Texas A&M University, observed these reefs during an autonomous underwater vehicle survey through the seamounts of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
In an article published in the journal Scientific Reports, Baco-Taylor and her team document these reefs and discuss possible explanations for their appearance in areas considered impossibly hostile to reef-forming scleractinia, whose communities are formed by small, stony polyps that settle on the seabed and grow bony skeletons to protect their soft bodies.
“I’ve been exploring the deep-sea around the Hawaiian Archipelago since 1998, and I’d seen enough to know that the presence of these reefs at these depths was definitely unexpected,” Baco-Taylor said.
What are these deep-sea reefs doing in the Pacific Ocean? Scientists are finding out.
Areas like the North Atlantic and South Pacific are particularly fertile habitats for deep-sea scleractinian reefs, but a combination of factors led scientists to believe that the accumulation of deep-sea coral colonies into healthy reefs was exceedingly unlikely in the deep waters of the North Pacific.
Low levels of aragonite, an essential mineral in the formation of scleractinian skeletal structures, in the region make it difficult for the coral polyps to develop their rugged coral skeletons. In addition, North Pacific carbonate dissolution rates, a measure of the pace at which carbonate substances like coral skeletons dissolve, exceed those of the more amenable North Atlantic by a factor of two.
In other words, these reefs simply should not exist.
“Even if the corals could overcome low aragonite saturation and build up robust skeletons, there are areas on the reefs that are just exposed skeleton, and those should be dissolving,” Baco-Taylor said. “Even if the species could survive in the area, we shouldn’t be finding an accumulation of reef.”
In the study, Baco-Taylor and her team articulate two potential reasons for the improbable success of these hardy reefs. Higher concentrations of chlorophyll in the areas of pronounced reef growth suggests that an abundance of food may provide the excess energy needed for calcification in waters with low aragonite saturation. Suitable current velocities in the area may also help the reefs to flourish.
But neither of these factors tell the whole story.
“Neither the chlorophyll nor the currents explain the unusual depth distributions of the reefs, why they actually get shallower moving to the northwest along the seamounts,” Baco-Taylor said. “There’s still a mystery as to why these reefs are here.”
The unexpected discovery of these reefs has prompted some to reconsider the effects of ocean acidification on vulnerable coral colonies. At a time when stories about the wholesale demise of reefs around the world are sparking alarm, these findings may offer a glimmer of hope.
“These results show that the effect of ocean acidification on deep-water corals may not be as severe as predicted,” said David Garrison, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research. “What accounts for the resilience of these corals on seamounts in the Pacific remains to be determined.”
The reefs observed during this research occur primarily outside of the local protected Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which means they exist in areas where destructive trawling is permitted and active.
The autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry lowered from a research ship; it will explore deep reefs. (Photo: Nicole Morgan)
Nicole Morgan, an FSU doctoral candidate and a coauthor of the article, said that locating these survivalist reefs is crucial because it gives scientists a chance to preserve them.
“We want to know where these habitats are so that we can protect them,” Morgan said. “We don’t want important fisheries to collapse, which often happens when reefs disappear, but we also want to protect them because they’re vulnerable, and we don’t want to destroy habitats.”
The discovery of these puzzling reefs shows that there are still gaps at the edges of our scientific understanding waiting to be filled. The success of hypothesis-driven exploration, like the kind that produced these findings, demonstrates the importance of continuing to strike out into the unknown.
“These results highlight the importance of doing research in unexplored areas, or ‘exploration sciences’ as we like to call it,” said Brendan Roark, associate professor of geography at Texas A&M University and Baco-Taylor’s co-principal investigator.
If there are additional reefs sprinkled across the Northwestern Hawaiian seamounts, Baco-Taylor wants to find them. Further study of these reefs could reveal important secrets about how these organisms might endure in the age of climbing carbon dioxide levels and ocean acidification.
“If more of these reefs are there, that would run counter to what ocean acidification and carbonate chemistry dictates,” Baco-Taylor said. “It leaves us with some big questions: Is there something that we’re not understanding? How is this possible?”
Rutgers Findings May Predict the Future
NSU President Teaches Underwater Lesson
Live Feed from the E/V Nautilus: ECOGIG
UTEC Geomarine Completes First North Ame
Reef Subsea Dredging & Excavation Comple
Tritech Gemini Assists Reef Subsea Dredg
Herbicide Runoff Reduced to Great Barrie
Marine Research Application Puts the Ree
Drones Open Way to New World of Coral Re
New Study Suggests Coral Reefs May be ab
BP Makes Gulf of Mexico Environmental Da
University Researcher Grows Oyster Reef
Southampton Researcher Helps to track Ma
Deep-sea Study Reveals Cause of 2011 Tsu
TAQA Receives Government Approval for No
Taubman Foundation Invests in Ocean Drug
MacArtney Set for Record Breaking Growth
Ocean Networks Selects Xtera for the Tu
Coral Reefs in Palau Surprisingly Resist
New Regional Manager for Aquatic Asia Pa
UTEC Makes Key Addition to UK Team
New 3D Atlas Makes Trace Metals in the O
Seatronics Adds Kongsberg Mesotech’s M3
Gas and Oil Discovery in the Valemon Are
The Coral Whisperer from Franconia
Sonardyne Joins ETI Consortium for North
Sonardyne Joins ETI Consortium for North
Study Makes Storm Surge Predictions at L
SUBSEA 20/20, Inc. Named North American
MacArtney Bolsters North American System
MacArtney Bolsters North American System
Legal Challenge to Dump Dredge Spoil Nea
Coral Reefs Provide Protection from Stor
iXBlue GAPS makes its mark in Mexico
North Sea Check Point: An Audit of the B
CSA Ocean Sciences Partners with CENTRE
The Quest to Save Coral
US Army Corps Makes Good Progress on Mia
NSU Oceanographic Students Start Crowdso
Until Death Do Us Part: Genetics Reveal
Deep-Sea Research Journal Publishes BOEM
Can Coral Save Our Oceans?
BW Offshore has signed contract with Pre
Secretary Jewell Announces Milestone for
Fourth Jupiter well proves extension of
XPD8 seals £2.25million contracts in Nor
Wild Well Announces Expansion in Asia Pa
NOAA lists 20 coral species as threatene
Reef Subsea Expands into New Port of Bly
Reef Subsea Awarded First German-Waters
GDF SUEZ and BP Discover New Central Nor
NOAA Team Discovers two Vessels from WWI
NW Marine Technology Summit Bolsters Mar
Pacific NorthWest LNG Installs Metocean
Scientists on NOAA-led Mission Discover
November - Geophysical Methods for the M
Angola Cables To Host Data Gathering Mee
3 years of additional operational fundin
Reef Subsea Concludes Year with Completi
MacArtney sets another expansion milesto
ABS Updates Guidance on LNG as Fuel & LN
USMRC’s LNG bunkering course plays key r
Roadmap to Recovery to Inform Coral Reef
Join a Plastic Pollution Research Voyage
NCP Consortium and TE SubCom Announce th
First Successful Lab Breeding of Rare Ca
Industry First Subsea Clamping Solution
Viper Subsea Jip Partner Makes Early Com
OneSubsea Awarded $330 Million Contract
Odyssey Marine Exploration Successfully
Mega-Scale Broadband PSDM in the North S
Climate Engineering May Save Coral Reefs
Robots to Identify what Makes the Indian
CIS Group Completes Subsea Piling Operat
Sir Eion Edgar Joins Hawaiki Cable to Bu
Underwater Metal Detecting Makes Every D
Coral Bleaching Threat Increasing in Wes
UM Researcher Helps Provide Extended Wea
Public Invited to Join NOAA on Deep Sea
Alcatel-Lucent and Quintillion Subsea Ho
Nova Southeastern University Researcher
New Study from Florida Tech Finds Pacifi
Ocean Acidification Shakes the Foundatio
The Ocean Cleanup Prepares for 2020 Paci
Alcatel-Lucent and Ocean Networks to Ext
Nova Southeastern University Receives Gr
CONTROP Makes Waves with the iSea Family
The Southwest Pacific Reveals Some of it
BOEM Announces Major Step for Renewable
K-Tower Data Gives Clues to Coral Growth
Sales and Service Partnership in the Asi
Equinix Supports FASTER Cable System in
Extreme Pacific Sea Level Events to Doub
Impacts of Extreme North Atlantic Winter
NOAA Declares Third Ever Global Coral Bl
Oceanology International Launches OI Nor
A Year of Discovery – Unlocking the Secr
JASCO Provides Underwater Noise Measurem
Marine Mathematics Helps to Map Undiscov
North East England Subsea Specialist Sec