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Coral Hotspots Discovered off Northeast US

Soft coral, probably Paragorgia arborea, on the edge of Hendrickson Canyon, off the coast of New Jersey.
Soft coral, probably Paragorgia arborea, on the edge of Hendrickson Canyon, off the coast of New Jersey. (Image credit: Nizinski et al, NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC/WHOI)

A survey of underwater canyons off the U.S. East Coast found a number of previously unknown hotspots for deep-sea corals.

The exploration, the first to look for corals and sponges in the area in decades, is helping researchers develop a computer model to determine where other coral hotspots might be found.

The survey took place over a two-week stretch in July. Researchers aboard the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Henry B. Bigelow ship looked for corals in submarine canyons off New Jersey, and connected to Georges Bank, a large elevated area of seafloor about 60 miles (100 kilometers) offshore that stretches as far south as Cape Cod, Mass., and north to Nova Scotia.

"The deep-sea coral and sponge habitats observed in the canyons are not like those found in shallow-water tropical reefs or deep-sea coral habitats in other regions," said Martha Nizinski, chief scientist of the research cruise, in a statement.  "We know very little about the distribution and ecology of corals in the canyons off the Northeast coast. Although our explorations have just begun, we've already increased our knowledge about these deepwater coral habitats a hundred times over."

The researchers took thousands of photographs of the coral using a remotely operated camera towed behind the ship. The corals observed live at depths between 650 and 6,500 feet (200 to 2,000 meters). Although no specimens were collected during this expedition, the thousands of images taken will be analyzed in the coming months to determine what types of coral live there.

More than 70 deepwater canyons, ranging in depth from 330 to 11,500 feet (100 to 3,500 m), exist along the Northeast's continental shelf and slope. Few are well studied, and many are likely home to as yet undiscovered life-forms.

Deep-sea corals (possibly Paramuricea) in Gilbert Canyon, off New Jersey, at about 5,535 feet (1687 meters) deep. (Image credit: Nizinski et al, NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC/WHOI)

Reach Douglas Main at dmain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Live Science Staff
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