Please select your home edition
GJW Direct 2020

Lava flow time portals: Understanding the development of deep-water coral communities

by NOAA Fisheries 20 Dec 2019 06:42 UTC
A dense community of deep-water coral on a 143-year-old lava flow located at South Point, Hawai‘i in 2015. © NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

Deep-water coral communities are some of the most diverse and productive environments in the deep ocean. They provide habitat for an array of organisms including some not yet known to science. Some corals are known to live far more than 2,000 years, but grow very slowly—less than a millimeter each year. This makes them very difficult to study within a human lifetime.

To understand how deep-water coral communities develop over time, researchers surveyed the community of deep-water corals growing on the lava flows of the island of Hawai'i. Since we know when the flows occurred, they essentially act as "portals in time." They allow us to view coral communities over a range of ages in the same environment. Hawai'i is probably the only place in the world where such a study could be performed due to its continuous and well-known volcanology.

On the leeward coast of Hawai'i, researchers deployed the submersible Pisces V and the remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer. They surveyed six lava flows and an older coral community growing on fossil carbonate nearby. Within a 60-mile area, each site was a different age: from 61 to 15,000 years old!

Comparing deep-water coral communities growing on these substrates of vastly different ages revealed a pattern of ecological succession extending over centuries to millennia. The communities changed in structure and diversity over time. The relatively fast-growing red coral (Coralliidae), which reaches maturity within 60-100 years, colonized new lava flows first, dominating the community. With enough time, the community shifted toward a more diverse array of tall, slower-growing corals including bamboo coral (Isididae) and black coral (Antipatharia). The last to colonize was gold coral (Kulamanamana haumeaae). Parasitic in nature, gold coral overgrows mature bamboo corals. It is also the slowest-growing coral within the community, growing thicker each year by just 0.04 mm—less than the width of a human hair.

This is the first study to examine the growth rate of deep-sea coral communities over a period of more than 100 years. Our research suggests that a Coralliidae community in Hawai'i can develop within about 150 years. The larger, slower-growing communities of gold coral could take thousands of years. These findings have important implications for the conservation and management of deep-sea ecosystems.

Watch a video from this research by videographers aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. In it, authors Meagan Putts, Frank Parrish, and Sam Kahng speak about how the field work for this research was accomplished.

Related Articles

Computers now "see" animals on the ocean bottom
A development that improves Atlantic sea scallop assessments The Northeast Fisheries Science Center's annual sea scallop research survey uses a towed sampling device called the HabCam. It collects approximately five million images of the ocean bottom off the Northeast United States. Posted on 20 Sep
Killer whale predation on bowhead whales
A new study provides essential information to conserve an endangered species For the first time, scientists have direct evidence that killer whales are preying on bowhead whales in the U.S. Pacific Arctic. A dramatic loss of sea ice in recent years may be leaving bowheads more vulnerable to killer whale predation. Posted on 19 Sep
Loggerhead turtles record a passing hurricane
Changes in dive behavior and movement patterns as storm passes In early June 2011, NOAA Fisheries researchers and colleagues placed satellite tags on 26 loggerhead sea turtles in the Mid-Atlantic Bight. The tagging was part of ongoing studies of loggerhead movements and behavior. Posted on 9 Sep
A disentanglement tale
Saving a humpback whale, removing nearly 4,000 pounds of fishing gear On Monday, July 27 trained responders began a 4-day effort to disentangle a humpback whale from submerged fishing gear near New York City. Multiple partners brought expertise and large boats to haul the heavy gear up and free the whale. Posted on 8 Sep
Give pregnant killer whales space to forage
Washington regulations require boaters to stay 300 yards from killer whales Washington regulations require boaters to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales, 400 yards in front and behind. Posted on 23 Aug
Genetic evidence points to critical role of skates
Skates are an important predator and widely distributed across Alaska marine ecosystems Skates are an important predator and widely distributed across Alaska marine ecosystems. There is interest in developing commercial fisheries for them. Posted on 16 Aug
Ocean heat waves dramatically shift habitats
"Thermal displacement" reflects how far species must go to follow preferred temperatures Marine heat waves across the world's oceans can displace habitat for sea turtles, whales, and other marine life by 10s to thousands of kilometers. Posted on 14 Aug
Illustrating the need for essential fish habitat
A new outreach tool in Hawaii bridges science and art NOAA Fisheries recently developed an innovative scientific illustration that shows how various habitat features support different life stages of a fish—uku, or grey snapper (Aprion virescens), in this example. Posted on 9 Aug
NOAA scientist saves entangled sea turtle
'Twitch' back in the wild after recovery in Galveston, Texas The Leo family was on board their sailboat when 7-year-old Kate spotted a fishing pole sticking straight up out of the water. As the family got closer it became clear a green sea turtle was entangled in the fishing line attached to the pole. Posted on 8 Aug
Collaborating on coral restoration
NOAA and The Nature Conservancy will help build capacity Last year, NOAA and The Nature Conservancy embarked on a multi-year partnership to support the collaborative development of targeted coral restoration plans for the four Pacific Island jurisdictions of Hawai'i, Guam, American Samoa, and the CNMI. Posted on 7 Aug
Vaikobi 2019AUG - Footer 2Grapefruit Graphics 2019 - FooterCyclops Marine 2020 - FOOTER