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New deep-sea corals discovered


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POSTED: Saturday, March 07, 2009

Scientists have identified seven new species of bamboo coral discovered thousands of feet below the ocean surface, officials said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said six of the seven species might represent entirely new genera, which it called a “;remarkable feat,”; given the broad classification a genus represents.

A genus is a major category in the classification of organisms, ranking above a species and below a family. Scientists expect to identify more new species as analysis of samples continues.

“;The potential for more discoveries is high, but these deep-sea corals are not protected everywhere as they are here, and can easily be destroyed,”; said University of Hawaii scientist Christopher Kelley.

The coral was discovered among the islands of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument using a submersible research vessel in 2007.

Richard Spinrad, NOAA's assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research, said the discoveries are important because deep-sea corals support diverse sea floor ecosystems, “;and also because these corals may be among the first marine organisms to be affected by ocean acidification.”;

Ocean acidification is a change in ocean chemistry due to excess carbon dioxide. Researchers have seen adverse changes in marine life with calcium-carbonate shells, such as corals, because of acidified ocean water.

“;Deep-sea bamboo corals also produce growth rings much as trees do, and can provide a much-needed view of how deep-ocean conditions change through time,”; he said.

The mission also discovered a coral graveyard covering about 10,000 square feet on a seamount's summit, more than 2,000 feet deep. Scientists estimated the death of the community occurred several thousand to potentially more than 1 million years ago, but did not know why the community died. The species of coral had never been recorded in Hawaii before.

Stanford University scientist Rob Dunbar, who studies long-term climate data by examining long-lived corals, said there was live coral dating back 4,000 years discovered in the monument, “;meaning 4,000 years' worth of information about what has been going on in the deep ocean interior,”; he said.

“;Studying these corals can help us understand how they survive for such long periods of time, as well as how they may respond to climate change in the future,”; he said.

Dunbar and Kelly collected specimens that looked unusual, but finding new species was not the focus of the three-week research mission. The objective was to locate and predict locations of high-density deep-sea coral beds in the monument.

The vast national monument, nearly 100 times larger than Yosemite National Park, was created by President George W. Bush in 2006 of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which stretch out 1,000 miles from the main Hawaiian islands.

The monument has more deep water than any other U.S. protected area, with more than 98 percent below scuba-diving depths and only accessible to submersibles. The Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, sponsored by NOAA and the University of Hawaii, piloted the Pisces V submersible from a research vessel to the discovery sites at depths of 3,300 to 4,200 feet.