Coral reefs mapped on the ocean floor
MARINE biologists and geologists have unveiled the first-ever set of maps detailing where vulnerable deep-sea habitats are likely to be found in the North East Atlantic.
The team from Plymouth University, the Marine Biological Association, and the British Geological Survey, have used complex modelling techniques to chart a surface zone more than three times the size of the UK's land surface area.
Among the vulnerable habitats they mapped are cold water coral reefs and sponge fields.
Dr Kerry Howell, project lead and member of the Plymouth University Marine Institute, said: "We have better maps of the surface of Mars than some parts of our deep-sea – but this marks the dawning of a new era in deep-sea mapping, and our first steps into understanding the deep-sea realm as never before."
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The first stage of the Mapping of the Deep project – led by the University, and financed by the BBC Wildlife Fund, and the Oak Foundation – has also enabled researchers to ascertain the proportion of our coral reefs and sponge beds that would be covered by the proposed network of Marine Protected Areas.
The new study has used predictive modelling to locate where habitats are found, according to a complex range of factors such as water temperature, depth, and rock formation.
Cold-water coral reefs, like their shallow water relatives, provide a source of food and shelter to many species – but unlike them, do not require light in order to grow.
The UK has extensive cold-water coral reefs in its waters, and all but one are found in the deep-sea, below 200m in depth.
Deep-sea sponge fields are similarly important in the role they play in the ecosystem. They live on soft, sandy or muddy sediments at a depth of around 1,300m, in total darkness, extreme cold and under crushing pressures. Individual sponges are about the size of a tennis ball, but they live at such densities that they form a unique habitat.
Rebecca Ross, a researcher at Plymouth University who produced the maps, said: "We know the conditions that we find a reef under, so we can use mathematical models to find other places that have the right combinations of conditions for reefs to grow. The use of predictive modelling is an important step forward in deep-sea exploration because the deep-sea is so vast and so expensive to visit that we cannot possibly hope to survey it all."
The study is published in the scientific journal Diversity and Distributions.