New coral species and rare sponge reef found off Irish coast

Lophelia: The stony coral Lophelia petusa, forms perfect reef habitat for the Lepidion fish.
By Denise O’Donoghue

A sensitive underwater habitat and new corals have been discovered in the ocean near Ireland.

A team of marine scientists have returned to Galway after spending three weeks at sea investigating Ireland’s deep ocean territory 300 miles off the west coast.

A high definition ROV-mounted video captured a number of ‘firsts’ in Irish waters, including a species of octocoral of the genus Corallium, which grows into huge fans with a delicate porcelain-like skeleton, and a species of black coral different to others described to date, which may prove to be an entirely new species.

"We are very pleased to discover what appear to be new coral species and a rare sponge reef, neither of which have been previously documented in Irish waters," said David O’Sullivan, Marine Institute, who was Chief Scientist on the SeaRover survey.

"These sensitive habitats are very important and this study is key to getting a better understanding of Irelands’ deep sea.

"Our key objective is to discover, protect and monitor Ireland’s rich offshore marine biodiversity so we can manage our marine resources effectively.

Without a knowledge of what lives on our seabed we are at risk of never fully understanding and appreciating Ireland’s invaluable marine environment.

The survey confirmed Irish deep-waters as a haven for these rare and delicate deep-sea black corals.

Jasonisis: A Bamboo coral

The team of scientists also reported areas of potential ‘sponge reef’ on the Rockall Bank, a highly unusual accumulation of living and dead sponges forming a complex habitat for many other creatures.

Such formations are very rare and have previously only been recorded in Canadian waters.

"This is the first time I have seen a sponge reef like this in nearly 20 years of studying the deep NE Atlantic," said Dr Kerry Howell, Plymouth University.

"This is an important find. Sponges play a key role in the marine ecosystem providing habitat for other species and recycling nutrients. They may even be a source of new antibiotics.

These new data will help us to better understand where and why these reefs occur.

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