Saturday, March 7, 2009

Corals 4,000 years old can tell environmental tales

If you go where you've never gone before, what are the chances you'll see what you've never seen before?

Pretty good.

That's why, while fascinating, it's not a shock that a recent series of dives in mile-deep water off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands turned up some bizarre-looking new marine life.

(Images: Above, a new genus and species of orange bamboo coral found 5,745 feet down. It is 4 to 5 feet tall. Credit: Hawaii Deep-Sea Coral Expedition 2007/NOAA . Image below is the Pisces V submersible. Credit: NOAA.)

More information and photos in the official NOAA press release here.

Among the discoveries of a 2007 NOAA-funded mission in the depths of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are seven new corals, never before described by scientists. And the mission found more signs of life that haven't yet been fully studied,

The coral discoveries are interesting not only for the intrinsic interest in finding new forms of life, but also because they can tell a story about conditions and long-term changes in conditions in the deep ocean.

“Deep-sea bamboo corals also produce growth rings much as trees do, and can provide a much-needed view of how deep ocean conditions change through time,” said Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s assistant administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. “These corals may be among the first marine organisms to be affected by ocean acidification.”

Some of the corals, still alive, may be 4,000 years old—that's nearly as old as the oldest of the reputed oldest living things on Earth, the bristlecone pines.

The research team, which included University of Hawai'i scientist Christopher Kelley and NOAA researcher Frank Parrish, sought to predict where dense deep coral colonies could be found and studied growth rates of corals. Among their finds, atop a seamount, was a field of dead coral, of a species not previously found in Hawai'i, and which may have died hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The research was conducted in party by the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory, sponsored by NOAA and the University of Hawaii, with the Pisces V submersible. It worked at depths nearly a mile deep.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

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