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New mathematical model maps undiscovered deep water coral reefs


Marine scientists have discovered four new deep-water coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Ireland, by using a new mathematical modeling system which predicted their locations, the Plymouth University announced on October 12, 2015.

The modeling system that predicted the occurrence of cold water corals using the power of predictive mathematical models has been developed at Plymouth University. 

The discovered coral reefs have been predicted to reside in the seas west of Ireland and were found at modeled locations at depths ranging up to 1.2 km (0.75 miles).

Video footage taken by the underwater vessel as part of the research trip. Video credit: DeepSeaEcologist

Researchers from Plymouth, the Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), and the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) have then confirmed the existence of coral reefs at predicted locations by using an underwater robot to obtain video evidence.

The scientific community has regarded this success as a significant breakthrough in pinpointing and potentially protecting these delicate habitats. 

New cold water coral reef discovered off Ireland about 800 m deep (2 625 feet). Video credit: DeepSeaEcologist

“We’re delighted with these results. It means we can now produce maps of where coral is likely to be for large areas of the deep-sea that we have not yet visited, and use them to identify high value ecological areas that might need protection from damaging activities,” Project lead Dr Kerry Howell, Associate Professor in the School of Marine Science and Engineering at Plymouth University, said.  

“The models work by looking at where we know deep-water coral reefs are found, identifying what is favorable environment for the corals, for example their favorite depths, and then looking for areas with the same or similar conditions. If conditions are very similar then there is a high likelihood we will find corals,” added Dr Anthony Grehan, from NUI Galway. 

The research was funded by the  European Union ‘Eurofleets’ programme, and supported by the Marine Institute (MI) of Ireland’s ship time fund. Research team has spent two weeks aboard the RV Celtic Explorer, and used its underwater robot, Holland I, to search at locations predicted as highly likely to support coral reefs. On each occasion it was deployed, Holland I found coral reefs. The team also searched for deep-sea sponge fields, but found the models to be less accurate, with a 50% success rate. 

A deep-sea coral with a crustacean associate. Video credit: DeepSeaEcologist

“We know much less about these important habitats and that limits the information upon which we can build our models. We need to do more work to better understand how deep-sea sponges live,”  Anna Downie, from Cefas, said. 

The production of accurate coral reef models has only been made possible by scientists having access to high resolution multibeam sonar maps of the seabed. Multibeam technology uses sound to ‘visualise’ the seafloor, and countries such as Ireland and Norway have  already mapped large areas of their territorial waters. 

The team expect to publish their findings in the near future and make the maps available for all to use.

“Our cold water coral reef models are now good enough to be used to better target areas that have not previously been explored, and this can greatly reduce the cost of future survey work,” Dr Howell said.

Source: University of Plymouth

Featured image: New cold water coral discovered off Ireland at a depth of about 800 m (2 625 feet). Image credit: DeepSeaEcologist

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