Coral Reef NOAA
 
April 20, 2014  

Why are deep-sea corals important?



Deep-sea coral and the habitats they create provide a variety of benefits:

  • providing habitat for a diverse array of species, including commercially important ones
  • serving as hotspots of biological diversity
  • being harvested for use in jewelry and art
  • providing clues to past climates
  • supplying compounds with potential medical uses

As our understanding of deep-sea coral communities has increased, so has our appreciation of their value. Deep-sea corals provide pockets of three-dimensional habitat for a diverse array of invertebrates and fishes in the vast expanse of the ocean. Certain species associated with deep-sea corals habitats produce chemicals that show high potential as novel medical compounds, and deep-sea corals themselves have been valued for jewelry and art objects for over 5,000 years. In addition, because of their widespread distribution and longevity, clues incorporated in the skeletons of deep-sea corals may shed light on past ocean temperature and chemistry.[a]

Conger eel and squat lobster are frequently observed in Lophelia reefs
Conger eel and squat lobster are frequently observed in Lophelia reefs. Photo Credit: S. Ross et al.

The three-dimensional structure of deep-sea coral may function in very similar ways to kelp forests, shallow coral reefs, and seagrass beds, providing enhanced feeding possibilities, a hiding place from predators, a nursery area for juveniles, and substrate for invertebrates. Stony coral "reefs," as well as deep-sea coral thickets, are often associated with a large number of other species and appear to form biodiversity "hotspots" in deeper waters.[a,b]

This specimen of the deep-sea coral Desmophyllum dianthus shows the bands that help marine scientists learn how ocean conditions changed over time. Photo Credit: J. Adkins, California Institute of Technology, and Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
This specimen of the deep-sea coral Desmophyllum dianthus shows the bands that help marine scientists learn how ocean conditions changed over time. Photo Credit: J. Adkins, California Institute of Technology, and Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Deep-sea coral structures may provide habitat for commercially important fishes. For example, a study from southeast Alaska found that 85 percent of large rockfish occurred in and around deep-sea coral colonies and commercially valuable species of shrimp and crabs use the coral branches for feeding or protection from predators [c]. Off the coast of Florida, deep ivory coral (Oculina sp.) reefs serve as spawning grounds for groupers and snappers and are home to a rich invertebrate community that possibly rivals the diversity of shallow coral reef systems. [b,d,e] In other cases, however, the linkages between commercial fisheries species and deep-sea corals remain unclear and may be indirect.

These cells were treated with discodermolide, a chemical that prevents cancer cells from dividing and spreading and comes from a sponge that grows on deep-sea reefs.
These cells were treated with discodermolide, a chemical that prevents cancer cells from dividing and spreading and comes from a sponge that grows on deep-sea reefs. Photo Credit: HBOI

Because deep-sea corals can live for centuries and incorporate trace elements and isotopes in their skeletons that reflect the physical and chemical conditions in which they grew, scientists are using them to reconstruct historic changes in global climate and ocean current systems.[a,b]

Bamboo corals are being investigated for their medical potential as both bone grafts and possible uses for their collagen-like skeleton. Several species of sponges that grow in deep-sea coral ecosystems have been found to contain compounds with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and even anti-tumor properties, and are being researched for pharmaceutical development. [a,b] And who knows what other potential lifesaving compounds will be found from deep-sea coral communities?

Citations:

  • Hourigan, T. and Cope G. 2008. Deep Sea Corals. NOAA Fisheries Service Habitat Connections. Vol. 6:1. 6 pp.
  • Lumsden, S. E., Hourigan, T. F., Bruckner, A. W., Dorr G. (eds.) 2007. The State of Deep Coral Ecosystems of the United States, NOAA Technical Memorandum CRCP-3, Silver Spring, MD. 365 pp.
  • Stone, R. 2006. Coral habitat in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska: depth distribution, finescale species associations, and fisheries interactions. Coral Reefs 25:229-238.
  • Gilmore, R.G. and R. Jones. 1992. Color variation and associated behavior in the epihepheline groupers, Mycteroperca microlepis (Goode and Bean) and M. phenax (Jordan and Swain). Bull. Mar. Sci. 51:83-103.
  • Reed, J.K. 2002b. Comparison of deep-water coral reefs and lithoherms off southeastern USA. Hydrobiol. 471:57-69.

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