through its Fisheries, Ocean, and Research offices has recently
ramped up a major program on deep-sea coral research. This
research has a foundation spanning more than a century ago
with the author Jules Verne who described an underwater forest
"composed of large treelike plants....with branches of a shape
I have never seen before" in his book 20,000 Leagues Under
the Sea. For at least 200 years people who have fished
have reported lines becoming entangled in deep-sea trees.
These so called trees are thickets of corals that provide
essential fish habitat for fish and other marine life. Unlike
the shallow tropical coral reefs these corals are found in
dark frigid waters often beyond the continental shelf break
in many of the world's oceans.
Why are deep-sea corals important?
in the past two decades has there been an increase in the
concern and study of these corals because their importance
was not generally recognized nationally and internationally.
These deep-sea trees of the seas can be thousands
of years old and have been found at depths ranging from 150
to 3,000 feet although some species range to 20,000 feet.
These corals, unlike the shallow water species, do not require
symbiotic organisms and sunlight to provide their energy needs.
In contrast, these deep-sea corals actively feed upon materials
and nutrients in the water column. Deep-sea corals basically
come in two types-hard or stony corals-which are similar to
those found on tropical coral reefs and soft corals, which
can be small and delicate or very large (up to 9 feet) and
tree-like. Specifically, deep-sea corals
are important for several reasons:
corals have a critical ecological role in that much
like ancient forests they serve as habitat for a diversity
of other organisms including fish and invertebrate communities,
including commercially important fisheries species.
They may serve as important indicators of past climates. Like
terrestrial trees, deep-sea corals add annual
rings. While they are slow growing, some specimens have been
estimated to be nearly 2,000 years old. Non-living corals
have been carbon dated to be greater than 40,000 years old.
In addition, corals have a much better time resolution than
sediment cores and are unaffected by bioturbation.
Deep-sea coral ecosystems provide a rich
biodiversity and as such are looked upon as a potential future
source of novel bio-compounds for development by the pharmaceutical
and biotechnology industries.
should build on recent deep-sea coral meetings
and workshops held over the past year. These have included
the Deep-Sea Corals Collaboration Planning
Meeting (11-2003 Tampa, FL), the Deep-Sea Corals Workshop
(1-2003 Galway, Ireland), and the 2nd International Symposium
on Deep-Sea Corals (9-2003 Erlangen, Germany).
information needs and research themes have emerged from these
and mapping these corals, with a priority on U.S. deep-sea
coral habitats, which have been largely unmapped
when compared to European and Canadian coral habitats.
A more comprehensive understanding of the biology and ecology
of deep-sea corals by conducting a species
inventory, growth and reproductive studies, and food web and
species interaction studies.
Understanding the uses of specific deep-sea species
of corals as indicators of climatic change.
and research of deep-sea corals are key to
increasing our understanding and improving the effective management
of these unique organisms. These studies should be multidisciplinary
and utilize the unique technologies and capabilities available
to the research community.