Deepwater Atlantic Habitats II: Continued Atlantic Research and Exploration in Deepwater Ecosystems with Focus on Coral, Canyon, and Seep Communities. Part II: Genetic Connectivity and Oceanomic Studies

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This study utilizes genetics and genomics techniques to characterize biodiversity and genetic connectivity among deep-sea coral habitats and cold seeps in and near submarine canyons and will use environmental DNA techniques to characterize plankton diversity and to identify key contributors to carbon export from surface waters that sustain sensitive benthic communities. The proposed genetics and genomic studies will contribute to our knowledge of how coral and invertebrate biodiversity is distributed in hard bottom habitats, canyons and seeps in the mid- and South-Atlantic regions that may be opened for oil and gas leasing in the future. Genetic estimates of connectivity will identify sources and sinks of larvae and will help define the spatial scales over which genetic exchange is likely to occur (seascape genomics). The use of genomic techniques to expedite the documentation of little-known eukaryotic plankton biodiversity levels, distribution patterns, and ties to benthic food webs will expand understanding and enhance predictive capabilities.

The USGS has a long-term commitment to assist the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in meeting their information needs in OCS regions. BOEM is concerned with preserving and protecting hard-bottom communities as the need for oil and gas exploration and wind energy increases on the Atlantic shelf and slope. To do this, BOEM utilizes scientific findings to develop protective measures to prevent or minimize impacts to sensitive marine habitats from offshore energy and mineral development. The Mid- and South-Atlantic planning areas are now to be considered for Federal Offshore oil and gas leasing under the administration’s ‘America-first Offshore Energy Strategy’. This project aims to meet BOEM’s urgent science needs in the Mid- and South-Atlantic planning areas, and involves collaboration among three federal agencies: BOEM, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), and the USGS. TDI Brooks with academic partners has been selected to serve as BOEM contractor for this study. Data gathered during this mission and future cruises for this project will help inform multiple management issues concerning this region. The project is named DEEP SEARCH: Deep-sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral, Canyon and Seep Habitats.

Specifically, this component aims to characterize levels of connectivity among populations of foundation species, leading to an increased understanding of the vulnerability of these organisms and associated communities to natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and will enable sound evaluations of potential impacts and appropriate areas of avoidance. The use of genomic technologies to characterize undersampled and poorly characterized planktonic organisms will facilitate documentation of biodiversity and may elucidate phylogeographic and/or bathymetric patterns, will lead to insights about connections of surface productivity to the sea floor (carbon export), and will serve as baseline data for future monitoring efforts, including the enhancement of predictive capabilities.

The project goal is to improve understanding of the planktonic and benthic communities (including corals) that reside in and around mid- and South-Atlantic canyon and cold seep habitats, including estimates of genetic connectivity among sites and trophic connectivity from the water column to benthic communities. Specific objectives include:

  1. Characterize patterns of genetic connectivity among abundant deep-sea corals that have wide geographic distributions, different life histories, and have been a part of previous connectivity studies (Lophelia pertusa, Desmophyllum dianthus, Madrepora oculate, Primnoa resedaeformis, Paragorgia arborea).
  2. Produce DNA barcodes and examine biodiversity and phylogeography for select invertebrates: scleractinian corals, anomuran crabs, seep-associated invertebrates.
  3. Characterize seep mussel (Bathymodiolus spp.) gill symbionts.
  4. Characterize diversity of eukaryotic plankton in the water column

Related topics:

Colonies of the deep-sea coral Lophelia pertusa off the coast of South Carolina

The Deep Discoverer Remotely Operated Vehicle took this image of Lophelia pertusa and a pink sea star (Chondraster grandis) at Richardson Ridge, approximately 160 miles off the coast of South Carolina at a depth of 800 meters.

(Public domain.)

DEEP SEARCH science team on the Research Vessel Atlantis in August, 2018

Members of the DEEP SEARCH science team include scientists from 5 USGS Centers and nine academic institutions. This photo was taken on the Research Vessel Atlantis during first intensive field expedition in August 2018

(Public domain.)

Fixed_Broad view

Fixed_Broad view of study area Atlantic Habitats II_0_USGS

(Public domain.)