- Researchers have found two new deepwater coral reefs, including one that spans more than 800 meters, or half a mile long, in the waters around the Galápagos Islands.
- They were discovered through the process of mapping the seafloor in Galápagos Marine Reserve with laser scanning technology.
- The reefs displayed a diversity of stony coral species and other organisms such as crustaceans, sharks and skates.
- The discovery of these two reefs occurred six months after the first discovery of deepwater reefs in the waters of the Galápagos Islands.
A team of international researchers recently discovered sprawling cold-water coral reefs in the deep waters around the Galápagos Islands. They found the corals after identifying marine areas with high wave energy and then mapping the seafloor with lasers.
On Oct. 5, the team sent a submersible craft hundreds of meters below the surface to find and document two healthy reefs: one that spanned more than 800 meters (2,600 feet), the length of about eight football fields, and the other 250 m (820 ft) long. Both reefs were found at depths of between 370 and 420 m (1,210 to 1,380 ft).
The reefs displayed a diversity of stony coral species, including many in the genus Madrepora. Scientists believe these corals have been forming and supporting marine biodiversity for thousands of years.
The reefs are situated within Galápagos Marine Reserve, one of the largest marine protected areas on Earth, spanning 133,000 square kilometers (51,400 square miles). In 2021, the Ecuadorian government announced it would protect an additional 60,000 km2 (23,200 mi2) with the creation of the Hermandad Marine Reserve, which came into effect in 2022.
Katleen Robert, a scientist at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, said these deepwater coral reef systems exhibited high diversity, describing each as a “forest or field of flowers.”
“When you stop and look in, it’s full of these organisms, like squat lobsters,” Robert told Mongabay. “We found lots of skates and some sharks, different species of fish. We see other types of corals not that different, not necessarily the hard ones that build the reefs, but also some that are shaped like fans or what we call black corals.”
The two reefs were found six months after the first discovery of “ancient deep-sea coral reefs” in the waters surrounding the Galápagos, which occurred in April this year.
Currently, many of the world’s shallow coral reefs are suffering from heat stress due to the steadfast warming of the oceans, as well as the current El Niño climate pattern. But Robert said the team did not detect any bleaching on these deepwater reefs, explaining that bleaching mainly impacts shallower corals.
Robert said the next step will be cataloging the species they captured in video footage, high-resolution mapping, and specimen samples.
“For every one-hour video that we’ve collected, we’re probably going to spend 10 hours in the lab, analyzing it and counting all the animals,” Robert said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we find over 100 different species that are in there.”
In addition to these two newly discovered reefs, the researchers also found two uncharted seamounts, which they mapped in high resolution.
Stuart Banks of the Charles Darwin Association said discovering these two reefs “takes us important steps closer to protecting hidden dimensions of ocean diversity and understanding the role that deep habitats play in maintaining our ocean’s health.”
“The Galápagos Marine Reserve is an area of outstanding biological importance, connected to partner marine protected areas across the Eastern Pacific,” Banks said in a statement.
“These fascinating new findings continue to feed important research to inform better management of existing and future marine protected areas in the region,” he said.
Banner image: An area of biodiversity (including corals, crustaceans, urchins, anemones, and more) on Cacho De Coral, a newly discovered pristine coral reef. Image courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on 𝕏 @ECAlberts.