Cold-Water Gulf Coral Grows at Record Depths

Large Lophelia colonies and numerous anemones on a portion of the subsea completion structure in block Mississippi Canyon 355 at a depth of about 1,500 ft. (Image credit: Lophelia II 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM)

Researchers have found a type of cold-water coral flourishing at record depths in the Gulf of Mexico, with colonies making their homes on the undersea structures that support offshore oil platforms.

During a 10-day expedition in the Gulf, a team of federal and university researchers surveyed coral growth on oil and gas platforms using cameras on a remotely operated vehicle.

They observed Lophelia pertusa growing 2,620 feet (799 meters) below the ocean surface on supports for the Ram Powell platform, which was built in 1997 and is one of the deepest platforms in the Gulf, according to a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Before this discovery, the record depth for Lophelia in the Gulf was about 2,066 feet (630 meters).

"Finding Lophelia at this depth was very exciting for the whole team, especially for those of us who have been studying coral habitat for decades," researcher Gregory Boland said in the statement from NOAA. "Our findings complement previous joint research on coral ecosystems and will help policy-makers manage and protect ocean resources on the Outer Continental Shelf."

Reefs of Lophelia thrive where there is no sunlight and create sanctuaries of life on the ocean floor, providing a habitat for several deep-sea fishes. Underwater structures from energy production platforms provide some of the rare hard surfaces on which Lophelia can grow, according to NOAA. Some populations of the coral had been damaged by oil unleashed in the 2010 Gulf spill. The research aims to inform future decisions about how to protect deep-water coral habitats, NOAA officials said.

Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.