Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystems

Science Center Objects

Although out of sight to most, a diverse array of coral species thrive deep below the photic zone off U.S. coasts and worldwide. Deep-sea corals can be found at depths greater than 50m, where sunlight does not penetrate. Similar to shallow-water corals, larger sea fan and reef-forming deep-sea coral species create structural complexity in the deep sea, attracting fishes and invertebrates that utilize corals for refuge and nursery grounds, and thus creating hotspots of biodiversity. Unlike shallow-water corals, corals inhabiting the deep ocean do not depend on symbiotic algae and light for food, but instead capture tiny organisms (plankton) in the water column. Over the past dozen years, the Leetown Science Center has participated in studies aimed at locating and characterizing deep water coral ecosystems in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific Oceans. Given their longevity (some coral species may live thousands of years!) and sessile lifestyles, these corals are vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts. Therefore, knowledge about locations, species presence, and requirements of deep-sea coral habitats are important aspects to consider when managing our Nation’s ocean resources.


deepwater coral

Deepwater coral
(Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.)