Marine mathematics maps undiscovered deep-water coral reefs


A team of marine scientists has discovered four new deep-water coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean using the power of predictive mathematical models.

Located at depths of up to 1.2km, in seas west of Ireland, the reefs were identified by a modelling system developed at Plymouth University that predicts occurrence according to conditions favourable to coral.

Researchers from Plymouth, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), and the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway), then confirmed their existence during a two-week expedition, using an to obtain video evidence.

The team has hailed the experiment as a breakthrough in pinpointing and potentially protecting these delicate habitats. Project lead Dr Kerry Howell, Associate Professor in the School of Marine Science and Engineering at Plymouth University, said:

“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.”

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

Funded by the European Union ‘Eurofleets’ programme, and supported by the Marine Institute (MI) of Ireland’s ship time fund, the team 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 per cent success rate.

Anna Downie, from Cefas, said:

“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.”


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