Scientists have mapped the largest known deep-sea coral reef, stretching hundreds of kilometers off the US Atlantic coast.
While researchers have known coral was present along the Atlantic Ocean since the 1960s, the reef’s size remained a mystery until new underwater mapping technology made it possible to construct 3D images of the ocean floor.
The largest known deep-sea coral reef “was right under our noses, waiting to be discovered,” said Derek Sowers, an oceanographer at the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust.
Sowers and other scientists, including several at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration federal agency, recently published maps of the reef in the journal Geomatics.
The reef stretches about 310 miles (500 km) from Florida to South Carolina and reaches 68 miles (110 km) wide at some points. The total area is almost three times the size of Yellowstone national park.
“It’s eye-opening — it’s breathtaking in scale,” said Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who was not involved in the study.
The reef has been found at depths ranging from 655 feet to 3,280 feet (200 to 1,000 meters), where sunlight does not penetrate. Unlike tropical coral reefs, where photosynthesis is important for growth, coral so far must filter food particles from the water for energy.
Deep coral reefs provide habitat for sharks, swordfish, starfish, octopuses, shrimp and many other types of fish, the scientists said.
Tropical reefs are better known to scientists, and snorkelers or divers, because they are more accessible. The world’s largest tropical coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, stretches for approximately 1,430 miles (2,300 km).
Sowers said it is possible that larger deep-sea reefs will be discovered in the future as only about 25% of the world’s seabed has been mapped in high resolution.
Maps of the seabed are created using high-resolution sonar devices carried on ships. Deep sea reefs cover more of the ocean floor than tropical reefs.
Both types of habitat are susceptible to climate change and disturbance from oil and gas drilling, said Erik Cordes, a marine biologist at Temple University and co-author of the new study.
The Associated Press reported