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New species of deep-sea corals discovered in Atlantic Marine Monument

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DNA analysis recently confirmed that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists and their collaborators at OceanX, the University of Connecticut (UConn), and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discovered two new species of deep-sea corals during a September 2018 expedition in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, located about 100 miles from the Northeast U.S. coast.

The research team was led by deep-sea biologist Tim Shank of WHOI and included co-PIs Taylor Heyl (WHOI), Rachel O’Neill (UConn), and John Leichty (JPL). Utilizing OceanX’s research and exploration vessel Alucia, the team explored and surveyed several of the unique deep-sea habitats in the monument, which includes three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon.

WHOI deep-sea biologist Tim Shank in the OceanX submersible Nadir diving in Lydonia Canyon. (Photo by Luis Lamar, National Geographic)

During the two-week expedition, the scientists collected a total of 29 coral samples in Lydonia Canyon at depths between 369 meters (1,211 feet) and 903 meters (2,963 feet) using the submarine Nadir. These were the first human-occupied submersible dives in this canyon since 1982 and only the third deep-submergence mission to Lydonia Canyon.

“Through ongoing genetic barcoding, we have identified at least two corals so far that represent genetically different species,” Shank said. “They don’t show sufficient genetic similarity to be any species that is currently known in the world’s repository for DNA sequences.”

According to Heyl, the two likely new species found in Lydonia Canyon are bubblegum corals, which she described as soft, deep-water corals, “with bundles of polyps that resemble wads of bubblegum along their branches.”

“We didn’t expect to find bubblegum corals there at all, since they haven’t been found in any of the neighboring canyons,” Shank said. “We found pink, red, and white bubblegum corals thriving there.”

A bubblegum coral (Paragorgia spp.) similar to, but distinct from, the new species identified in Lydonia Canyon. (Photo by Ivan Agerton, OceanX.)

“We observed a high diversity of other corals—at least 24 species—on the seafloor and are discovering more through genetic analyses,” he added.

Shank noted that coral species deep in the canyon at more than 900 meters (2,953 feet) below the surface were very different from those found in shallower waters. In total, the team collected some 200 samples of corals, sponges, and other marine life during the expedition’s three submersible dives.

“We’re still analyzing the data,” he noted. “But we found surprising patterns of species diversity at different depths and among the different canyons in the monument.”

Corals found at these depths grow at an extremely slow pace: One that is a foot tall could be as much as 500 years old. Deep-water corals around the world also provide the framework to support entire ecosystems that contain more than 2,500 species living on and around them, including brittle stars, squat lobster crabs, and sea lily crinoids.

A bubblegum coral (Paragorgia spp.) similar to, but distinct from, the new species identified in Lydonia Canyon. (Photo by Ivan Agerton, OceanX.)

In addition, the team tested a new universal barcode for invertebrates during the expedition. Barcoding is a technique that uses a specific segment of an organism’s DNA to identify different species at the genetic level, rather than by analyzing an organisms physical characteristics. UConn’s O’Neill and her team were able to validate the effectiveness of the new barcode by distinguishing all of the different salp species present in a single, commingled sample. Salps are a gelatinous, free-swimming animal common to the open ocean that may play an important role in Earth’s climate system by consuming carbon near the surface and excreting it in pellets that sink into the deep ocean.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument covers approximately 4,913 square miles (12,724 square kilometers), is located about 130 miles east-southeast of Cape Cod, and includes two distinct areas: one that covers three canyons and one that covers four seamounts. (Map courtesy of NOAA)

The monument was created by President Barack Obama in 2016 and is the first and only national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean. However, it is currently under threat of losing its protected status.

“The Northeast Canyons represent some of the most unique and biodiverse habitats in the Atlantic Ocean, and exploring and understanding these canyons is critical to creating awareness for and protecting them,” said Vincent Pieribone, Vice Chairman, OceanX. “We are thrilled to learn with our partners at WHOI, JPL, UConn and Bloomberg Philanthropies that this mission uncovered new species of coral. These discoveries will help move us toward a better understanding of our oceans, our planet’s most important and most under-examined natural resource.”

The expedition was made possible through the Bloomberg-OceanX partnership and pledge of a combined $185 million over the next four years to facilitate ocean exploration and conservation around the world. Through the partnership, Bloomberg Philanthropies and OceanX aim to create a critical platform to increase the world’s collective understanding of and engagement in our oceans.

Find out more at www.whoi.edu.

Marine Life & Conservation Blogs

Sharks the Ocean’s Greatest Mystery – Part 2

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Sharks are an incredibly significant animal in human culture of both the past and present, they are an animal that have been embodied in our culture for millennia. They are represented in formats such as books and clothing, but most notably in our TV and films, which is where a large portion of their negative reputation stems from. A popular TV representation of sharks comes from Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week’, and I believe sharks are possibly the only animal on our planet to have an entire week dedicated to them every year. However, despite this, we still know more collectively about the surface of the Moon and Mars, about Galaxies outside of our own, and even about animals that have been extinct for millions of years, than we do about sharks.

Sharks are our Ocean’s top predator, and they represent just how little we know about our blue planet. We have put more money into exploring outer space than we have exploring our seas and whilst many people call space the final frontier, I believe the final frontier is our Oceans. There are people that have lived in space for over a year, yet we aren’t able to stay underwater for more than a few short hours, and with each dive, scientists are discovering something new in the deep sea, giving us a better understanding of our oceans and the top predator that lives within them.

What we do not know

It is easier to talk about what we do not know and the implications of not knowing it, we still don’t know where most shark species mate or give birth, knowing this would accelerate conservation efforts for sharks in a huge way as these areas could then have realistic protections placed on them, allowing us to preserve key stages of the Sharks life cycle.

Marine Biologists have stated that the discovery of a White Shark breeding ground would be the holy grail of Ocean Science, but the only reports of White Sharks mating come from a handful of sightings from Fisherman and Sailors, so these cannot be used as an official record.

We know that Sharks mature late in the same way as us humans, it is estimated that some species are estimated to not be sexually mature until their late 30’s and 40’s, which means that these species are at extreme risk of disappearing due to fishing, as they aren’t able to replenish their numbers fast enough when put under extreme fishing pressure. There is a lot of debate over whether Sharks mature at a certain age or a certain size, for example it was estimated that White Sharks mature at four metres in length, however, in South Africa in 2017 a female White Shark was killed by Orcas, and it was determined that she was either immature or hadn’t mated, as there was the presence of a Hymen.

We are also still unsure about the impacts of human activities on Sharks and how losing Sharks, or their habitat, would affect the habitats and environments on land, environments in which we depend on for our survival.

What we do know

New Shark discoveries are made every year, and scientists are predicting that in the next 15-20 years we will be entering the golden age of ocean and shark discoveries. We already know that sharks are the oceans top predator and we have determined that they affect the very mechanics and functions of the Ocean, if we were to remove them, we would be putting the worlds ecosystems at risk of collapsing. Sharks are an integral part of the balance of the oceans, they help by controlling populations of other species, if we were to lose sharks, species such as turtles would have an increase in population, therefore leading to more seagrass being eaten, which is a prime food source for many animals. Thus, other smaller animals would not be able to feed, and their population would decrease, also the decrease of sea grass would affect us humans on earth as the oceans plant life helps to absorb carbon dioxide and create oxygen, and actually up to 75% of the oxygen we breathe is created from the oceans.

We know that some Shark species have complex social relationships that aid in their survival, although this has only been observed in a handful of species. Lemon Sharks form bonds as pups and hunt together in the shallow mangrove swamps of the Bimini Atoll, and will learn and hunt together and learn vital skills needed in their future survival. Hammerheads are possibly the most famous for social interactions as they form huge schools off places such as the Galapagos Islands and it has been observed that the more dominant females swim in the centre of the school and display for the males.

Some shark species, such as the Zebra Shark, have been known to mimic other animals. Zebra sharks are born with stripes (which fade as they get older) and they have the second longest tail (after the Thresher Shark), this helps them to mimic the highly venomous, White-Banded Sea Snake in order to trick predators into avoiding them, they have even been reported to mimic taking a breath at the surface like a sea snake would do.

It has recently been discovered that Greenland Sharks are now the longest lived Vertebrate on our Planet, they are believed to be able to exceed the age of 500, with females not reaching sexual maturity until they are around 150 years old. This was discovered by examining special proteins in their eyes that do not degrade with age. Determining age and sexual maturity are crucial for understanding and managing shark populations as knowing what age a Shark can breed will allow us to gauge what protections a species needs.

It has recently been discovered that female Whale Sharks are able to store sperm to use over a period of time, this is in order to ensure their chance of reproducing, even without recently mating. This is a huge advantage for conserving the species, as Whale Sharks are classed as an endangered species and so, with the number of whale sharks declining, this ensures the species can continue. Along with this, Whale Sharks have also been found to be pregnant with up to 300 pups, and these pups can be at different stages of development due to the staggered use of stored sperm.

Of all things we know there is one thing that is certain, a Shark, no matter the species, is unique and worth more to our world alive than dead. In the next blog we will explore the threats that Sharks face and how we can help Sharks through the tough times ahead.


Follow Donovan on Instagram at www.instagram.com/donovans_reefs

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Nauticam NA-α1 Housing for Sony α1 Camera now shipping

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The Sony α1 is the company’s flagship full-frame interchangeable lens camera.  Designed around the new 50.1MP Exmor RS BSI CMOS sensor and the BIONZ XR processor, the α1 is truly a camera which can do it all.  It’s 759 point Fast Hybrid Autofocus system offers advanced subject tracking and real-time eye autofocus on both humans and animals.  The optimized processing within the α1 allows it to achieve 30fps continuous shooting at full resolution along with 8K 30p and 4K 120p 10-bit video recording.

Nauticam has supported the Sony Alpha full-frame line since the original a7 with professional grade aluminum housings that offer intuitive access to all the controls and functions of the cameras. As the cameras have evolved, so have the Nauticam housings. The NA-α1 underwater housing provides fingertip access to all key camera controls in a rugged and reliable aluminum underwater housing. Ergonomic camera control access is one of the defining strengths of a Nauticam housing, and the NA-α1 continues this tradition.

Integrated DSLR-housing styled handles with ergonomic rubberized grips and stainless steel stiffening brackets add stability and accessory mounting points. The NA-a1 also features dual rear thumb-levers that are easily reached from the handle that access three of the most-used controls on the rear of the camera. The right lever actuates the AF-ON and RECORD buttons while the left lever is mapped to the PLAY button.

Atop the housing on the left side are controls in the form of a MODE dial and FOCUS mode lever. The C1, C2 buttons as well as the EV compensation dial also have direct access from the top of the housing. The C3, which is typically assigned to control switching between the EVF and the LCD screen is easily reachable on the rear of the housing from the left handle.

For more information visit the UK Nauticam website by clicking here 

or to visit the USA Nauticam website click here.

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Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life.  The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.

£1475 per person based on double occupancy.  Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available.  Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp.  Flights and transfers are included.  See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.

This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

Call 020 3515 9955 or email john@thescubaplace.co.uk

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

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