July 24, 2014, 10:39 am

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Explore the Ocean Live!

Chuck Fisher and his colleagues are currently exploring corals and their associates in the deep Gulf of Mexico. You can follow the cruise live at nautiluslive.org

 This cruise is part of a larger research program focused on examining the ecosystem-level response to oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The research group leading the cruise is called the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs into the Gulf of Mexico (ECOGIG) Consortium, which is made up of scientists from a wide variety of disciplines studying current flow, ocean chemistry, microbial activity, deep-sea coral communities, and everything in between. ECOGIG, funded as a part of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), is studying both natural oil and gas seepage into the Gulf of Mexico and ecosystem responses and effects directly attributable to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The team will focus on deep-sea corals, animals that live on and around them, and their response to the oil spill.  To do so, they will re-image as many as possible of the same corals that they have followed over the last 4 years and collect samples for analyses of coral and microbe response to natural seepage. 

 

Lophelia reefs discovered as important homes for sharks

A recent study has shown that Lophelia reefs have co-benefits for both sharks and humans.

Coralbots to repair coral reefs

 

Underwater robots tasked with saving coral reefs are being developed at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. The idea is to use underwater intelligent robots that repair damaged coral reefs. Over the last year, scientists have been developing swarm and vision algorithms and testing robotic platforms for their suitability as CoralBots.

Dubbed "coralbots", they are being designed to work in groups, in a similar manner to bees and ants. The team is still "training" the software that will control the bots to "recognise" corals and distinguish them from other sea objects. Corals are easily damaged by pollution and destructive fishing practices, and it takes decades for them to re-grow. They are colonies of tiny living organisms, most commonly found in warm shallow waters in the tropics. But the depths of the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Scotland are home to cold-water reefs. When they get damaged, scuba divers re-cement broken fragments, helping them re-grow - but it is tricky for divers to reach depths over 200m. Coralbots, the researchers hope, will be a lot more efficient, able to repair the reefs in days or weeks.

The team, which consists of a marine biologist, an artificial intelligence scientist, a roboticist, and a machine vision scientist, said it was trying to raise £2m to hold a first demonstration. The scientists said that if they got all the cash they needed, the bots could be embark on their first mission within a year. Initially, the robots would be adaptations of those already developed at the university's Ocean Systems Lab. They would be about a metre long, with built-in video, image-processing and simple manipulation tools, such as scoops and arms, and would operate in "swarms".

Swarming in nature is collective action of a large number of agents that are individually stupid but collectively can complete complex tasks. Besides insects, birds and fish also swarm, as well as the smallest and simplest micro-organisms, such as bacteria."Our key idea is that coral reef restoration could be achieved via swarm intelligence, which allows us to exploit co-operative behaviours we see from natural swarms of bees, termites and ants that build complex structures such as hives and nests," said marine biologist Lea-Anne Henry who is lead scientist on the project at Heriot-Watt. She said the robots would be intelligent enough to navigate and avoid obstacles.

"We are developing new intelligent object recognition routines, exploiting the data from hundreds of coral reef images, to enable each swarm member to recognise coral fragments and distinguish them from other materials and objects in the environment in real-time," she said.

Corals in danger

A quarter of all marine life on the planet inhabits corals, according to the World Wildlife Fund.In coastal areas, they also provide an important barrier against natural disasters such as storms, hurricanes, and typhoons. There are fears that coral reefs may begin to disappear within 50 years. Besides destructive fishing practices, other contributing factors are careless tourism and carbon dioxide emissions that make seawater more acidic, leading to the death of key coral species.

Last week, the CoralBots team launched a global fundraising campaign through the US website www.kickstarter.com. Here, the public can view the CoralBots project and donate to its fundraising target of 107,000 USD. Funds will be used to add a manipulator arm to one of the autonomous robots at Heriot-Watt University (her name is Nessie), and configure Nessie with the programs they have been developing so she can perform her coralbot tasks in a public aquarium in Scotland. In just one week, the team has already raised 20,000 USD, but they must raise the full amount to receive the funds, with the campaign finishing on the 27th of May. Please visit the site to find out more. 

Secret love between corals and worms

Lophelia with Eunicid worm. Copyright Solvin Zankl.

A new study has found that the relationship between a cold-water coral and a worm is beneficial for both partners involved.  The worm can enhance its food uptake by stealing from its host coral, the coral increases the build up of its skeleton without a substantial increase in metabolic costs. This unexpected finding was recently published in an article by Christina Mueller of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ).

Cold-water corals live in the cold ocean, at depths between 40 and >2000 meters,unlike the better known tropical corals, that grow in warm and shallow waters. Cold-water corals are hardly known, but their reefs are hotspots of biodiversity in the deep sea. Cold-water corals like Lophelia pertusa form extensive reefs on the deep seafloor. The worm Eunice norvegica lives closely associated with the corals, but until recently, it was unclear what this association entails. 

Mueller and colleagues found that the worm can enhance its food uptake by stealing from its host coral. The coral does however not suffer from that since it can feed on a broad range of food. When the worm steals from the coral, the coral increases its feeding on smaller particles, which are less interesting to the worm. Furthermore, in the presence of the worm, the coral increases the building up of its skeleton (calcification). Interestingly this however did not result in a significant increase in the energetic costs as indicated by constant respiration. In consequence, the relationship is beneficial for both partners involved. 

Experiments in aquaria

Worms and corals were placed together or alone in aquaria and fed with two different food sources.  Mueller and colleagues could trace the food with a chemical marker and thereby tested how much of the food was used for tissue growth and how much was respired by both animals. They also checked if there was a difference when they were kept together or alone. In case of the coral they also determined how much of the food was used for building up the coral skeleton (calcification) with and without the worm present.

Influence of climate change

This study showed that species interaction can influence ecosystem functioning and are essential to understand the ecosystem. The reef is not a “coral-only” reef, it is also characterized by the interactions between different organisms that make it so rich and determine its function. The presence of the worm can facilitate reef growth and framework strength and thus can enhance ecosystem development and persistence. These species interactions therefore might also make a difference when it comes to predictions about the future of cold-water coral reefs, considering changing environmental conditions. This unique ecosystem is already under thread due to climate change, including ocean warming and ocean acidification.

 

The research was part of the PhD project (CALMARO) which was funded by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme. The experiments took place at the Sven Loren Centre for Marine Sciences-Tjärnö, at the University of Gothenborg, Sweden in summer 2010.

 

For more information, see the full article at Plos One

Thanks to Christina and Dick van Oevelen from NIOZ, The Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, for this news story. Image courtesy of Solvin Zankl. 

 

Caribbean corals of the deep

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Many of us imagine corals living in warm, tropical waters like those in the Caribbean. But what many of us don’t know is that the Caribbean has the highest number of species of deep-water scleractinian corals in the western hemisphere. More than 75% of the Caribbean Sea region is covered by waters >500 m water depth, but our knowledge of deep-sea biodiversity in the Caribbean remains poor.

Lophelia.org brings you a new case study on the deep-water corals of the Caribbean, courtesy of Dr Lea-Anne Henry. Learn about the species in these waters, and see a spectacular video which shows the diversity of corals from 400 to 700 meters deep. 

Changing Oceans Expedition

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Researchers from across the UK, and the world, recently returned to shore following a highly successful, month-long research expedition aboard the Royal Research Ship James Cook. The Changing Oceans Expedition, led by Professor Murray Roberts from Heriot-Watt University (HWU), was part of the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme, with the aim of examining the potential impact of ocean temperature and chemistry changes upon cold-water coral reefs and the associated reef-creatures.

Research activities on board the James Cook centred on the Holland I Remotely Operated vehicle (ROV) – an impressive yellow robot which descended more than 1800 m into the North Atlantic in search of coral reefs. With the expertise of the pilots, we collected a myriad of creatures from bacteria to giant crabs, as well as dazzling high-definition footage of the reefs. One highlight was the use of a specially designed microbial sampler which allowed the ROV to use its robotic arms to carefully collect corals and preserve them in the water from their natural environment; this allowed the scientists on board to analyse the microbial fauna of the corals – a first for the North Atlantic reefs.

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For the corals brought onto the ship, it was challenge time, as they were subject to temperature and CO2 levels projected for the oceans at the end of the century. Treatment tanks were set up to enable monitoring of the  response of the corals Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata to ocean warming and acidification. As well as measuring respiration and growth, we also examined the protein expression and DMSP production of the corals in response to these changes,and the  fitness of the animals.

Sponges were also the focus of intensive research, as we looked at the role of sponge assemblages in carbon cycling in the deep oceans. Using sponges collected by the ROV, they examined their respiration and feeding using incubation chambers and isotopically labelled food sources.

The diversity of expertise from collaborators across the UK and the world meant that the ships activities changed regularly. We collected box-core samples from the Hebrides Terrace seamount, deployed an Eddy-lander system to measure oxygen consumption, a SPI camera to image the fauna in the upper seabed and examined the environment the coral ecosystems need using a CTD, Moving Vessel Profiler and Stand Alone Pumps. For all the tired scientists returning to land, it is now time for the lab work to begin, as samples get processed and analysed. The Changing Oceans Expedition is one of the most ambitious attempts yet to understand the functional ecology of cold-water coral systems. Without this understanding we cannot predict how these ecosystems will respond to global climate change. More information about the reseach and some stunnign images from the deep sea can be found on the Changing Oceans Expedition blog

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Squat lobster with a black coral Deep-sea crab with Lophelia pertusa

ISDSC movie

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In the last decade the global presence of deep sea, cold-water corals in a range of ocean margin settings has been established, and is still being expanded. The 5th International Deep Sea Coral Symposium addressed new developments and knowledge and took place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands from 1-7 April, 2012.

Here is the video from the conference, showing some deep sea scientists at work

New case study: Trondheimsfjord

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Lophelia.org has another new case study, courtesy of Sebastian Hennige. This case study showcases the expedition of the FS Poseidon with the bright yellow submersible, JAGO. Click here to see the case study, including some stunning images of the deep, and video footage from JAGO. Thanks also to Solvin Zankl and GEOMAR for images and video.

New case study - The Azores

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We have added a new case study to Lophelia.org  -  the deep-sea coral hotspot of the Azores, where you can find more than 160 coral species. Click here to learn all about the cold-water corals at the Azores, how they are being protected, and see some stunning images!

Thanks to Fernando Tempera and Marina Carreiro-Silva (IMAR/DOP, University of Azores) for text and images.


Cold-water corals on the Meso-American barrier reef



NOAA's Deep Coral & Associated Species Taxonomy & Ecology (DeepCAST) II Expedition led by Dr. Peter Etnoyer explored depths below the Meso-American Reef in Roatán, Honduras in May 2011.

The team made six submersible dives between 365 and 670 m deep, conducting photo and video transects to estimate coral and sponge diversity and abundance, characterising water chemistry, and collecting corals and molluscs to discern the relationships between corals and their epifauna. Among the highlights of the trip was the first confirmed documentation of live Lophelia pertusa along the Meso-American Reef.

Ocean acidification: Connecting science, industry, policy and public

 Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) recently launched a new short film “Ocean acidification: Connecting science, industry, policy and public” (http://www.youtube.com/user/PMLAdministrator?feature=mhee), at the International Ocean Acidification Reference User Group meeting in Brussels.  

Ocean acidification is a recently recognised phenomenon which results from the growing quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere. Much of this gas is being absorbed at the ocean surface, pushing seawater down the pH scale towards acidity and posing a potential threat to marine ecosystems and those dependent on them. As scientific research reveals more about how the oceans and the life they contain might be affected, there is a need to engage with a wider community including policy makers, environmental managers and the general public to understand what is happening, how we might be affected and what actions could be taken to reduce any risks.

The film brings together a wide range of stakeholders including HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, school children, a Plymouth fishmonger, a UK government Chief Scientific Adviser, representatives from industry and policy making departments, as well as a group of internationally recognised expert scientists.

It has become obvious that each of the interest groups has its own concerns and level of understanding. Dr Carol Turley OBE, who led the film production team at PML in her role as Knowledge Exchange Coordinator for the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme, explains this can lead to confusion and misunderstanding: “Scientists are reticent to make long-term predictions until they have a sound scientific basis for doing so; policy makers often require immediate answers that can lead to timely solutions, while industry needs to plan ahead; and the public want to know how they may be affected and what is being done to face any likely threats. Such a diversity of information requirements sounds like a recipe for confusion. This film highlights the need for clear communication at the earliest opportunity to ensure that all stakeholder groups go forwards with an understanding of each others’ positions and responsibilities, by using a real example of how this is already working within the ocean acidification community.”

Although the final impacts are still not clear, ocean acidification is relatively newly recognised, happening now and should be a concern for all of us as it has the potential to affect everyone. However, making sure the message gets through can be a real challenge. Speaking the same language, understanding the different requirements of the various interest groups and accepting the importance of working together is the first step.

Dr Faith Culshaw from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), who commissioned the film, added “Communication between these groups is essential if we are to face up to the world’s pressing environmental challenges. This short film, which we at NERC were pleased to support financially, shows that getting all interests around the same table to face up to a challenge, understand what needs to be done and sharing the responsibility can and does work.”

Prof Dan Lafolley, Chair of the international Reference User Group on Ocean Acidification, is clear about the importance of this film "Everyone should see it. A powerful new film. Fantastically clear, it gives a fresh look at ocean acidification - one of the most important environmental issues of the modern generation".

The 12 minute film “Ocean acidification: Connecting science, industry, policy and public”, can be viewed via: www.oceanacidification.org and www.pml.ac.uk or directly on: http://www.youtube.com/user/PMLAdministrator?feature=mhee.

Deepwater Horizon

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Deepwater Horizon - 1 year on.

 It is now a year since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, which resulted in 205.8 million gallons of crude oil being released into the Gulf of Mexico. For 3 months, oil flowed into the Gulf from the gushing wellhead, making it the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The environmental consequences of the spill are still being felt today, and are likely to be for a long time yet.

 Over 8000 species live within the area of the oil spill, including more than 1,200 fish, 200 birds, 1,400 molluscs, 1,500 crustaceans, 4 sea turtles, and 29 marine mammals. Evidence is emerging that some of the cold-water corals in the Gulf may have been damaged by the oil spill, following a research cruise by a team of scientists led by Charles Fisher from Penn State University.

 Seven miles southwest of the spill at a depth of 1400 m, a community of deep sea corals (gorgonians and Madrepora) was discovered in November 2010, including many recently dead colonies and others that clearly are dying. Visible damage included bare skeleton where coral tissue had sloughed off and was often covered with what appeared to be decaying tissue. Some coral skeletons had no live tissue visible. Even the behaviour of the associated invertebrates, such as brittle stars, appeared impaired. None of the scientists, many of whom have worked in the Gulf for over a decade, had ever seen anything like this.

In November, the human occupied submersible Alvin made its first foray into post-spill Gulf waters, led by Chief Scientist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia.Sediment and water columns samples were collected in the vicinity (2.5 miles and further out) of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead.

In December 2010, a team of NSF scientists revisited these deep-water corals using the submersible Alvin to carefully document the bottom and to collect samples of animals and sediment. The team also positioned a time-lapse camera, which operated until February, to create a record of how the corals repair or deteriorate in response to their recent damage.

 An area of particular concern in regards to cold-water corals was Viosca Knoll, a site approximately 20 miles from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that hosts the largest known concentration of the cold-water coral, Lophelia pertusa, in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists have observed no obvious physical impacts on these communities, with the corals behaving normally with no signs of distress. However, they may have suffered genetic mutations or lose their ability to reproduce, and thus these sites are being monitored for sub-lethal effects by USGS scientists. It is too early to draw conclusions about the environmental impact of this devastating oil spill.

 Further details of the spill and impacts can be found on Wikipedia, the BBC , NOAA and in a recent paper in Plos Biology. Image courtesy of the BBC

Microbiology on Lophelia.org

ckcultureplateAn exciting new section has been added to Lophelia.org, courtesy of Dr Chris Kellogg at the US Geological Survey. Microbiology, the study of unicellular, microscopic organisms, is an important new area of research for cold-water corals. Just as humans have beneficial bacteria living on our skin and in our intestines, corals have symbiotic microbes in their mucus, tissues, and skeletons. It is possible that the microbes are helping to feed these corals, similar to the chemosynthetic bacterial symbionts that feed hydrothermal-vent worms. Unfortunately, there are also disease-causing microbes that can infect corals.

Identifying and characterising those bacteria will not only increase our understanding of microbial diversity, but could also uncover a new source of enzymes or pharmaceuticals.

Visit the new Microbiology section to learn all about this fascinating area of research.

Ocean Acidification

Cambridge University hosted the kick-off meeting of the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme in January 2011. 

The 5 year Programme is the UK’s response to growing concerns over ocean acidification and is jointly funded by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

The programme will collaborate with other ocean acidification programms from around the world and aim to:

1.  Reduce uncertainties in predictions of carbonate chemistry changes and their effects on marine biogeochemistry, ecosystems and other components of the Earth System

2.  Understand the responses to ocean acidification, and other climate change related stressors, by marine organisms, biodiversity and ecosystems and to improve understanding of their  resistance or susceptibility to acidification

3.  Provide data and effective advice to policy makers and managers of marine bioresources on the potential size and timescale of risks, to allow for development of appropriate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The benthic consortium of the programme, led by Dr Steve Widdicombe, brings together 25 key researchers from 12 UK organisations to begin to quantify the impact of ocean acidification and warming on the health and activity of key benthic organisms. As part of this consortium, scientists at Heriot Watt University will invesigate the physiological and functional response of the cold-water coral, Lophelia pertusa to ocean acidification and warming. Further information can be found at the Benthic Consortium website.

Extreme Corals 2010

The US expedition, Life on the Edge:  Extreme Corals 2010 has just set sail from North Carolina, bound for Florida.  During their 15-day mission, a team of researchers and educators will explore new features found on acoustic seafloor maps from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Florida east of Jacksonville. Mission scientists will map live coral and associated animals and strive to understand the importance of deep coral ecosystems as fisheries habitat, reservoirs of ocean biodiversity, and recorders of past changes in climate and ocean conditions. The cruise is led by Chief Scientists, Dr. Steve Ross (University of North Carolina Wilmington) and Dr. Sandra Brooke (Marine Conservation Biology Institute). North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences educator Mike Dunn (ncmuseummike) and science teacher Beverly Owens (owensscience) will be blogging from the ship during the mission.

Evolution Lost

 One fifth of animal and plant species are under the threat of extinction, a global conservation study has warned. Evolution Lost, the most comprehensive stocktake of the world’s vertebrates reveals that populations of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species have declined on average by 30 per cent over 40 years, and one fifth of all vertebrates species are threatened with extinction.

Evolution Lost, produced by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), uses the latest IUCN Red List of Threatened Species data and the WWF Living Planet Index population data to give us a complete picture of the state of the world’s vertebrates.

The report provides for the first time information on population trends for all vertebrate groups (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) and information on the threatened status of reptiles and fish. With this new data it is possible to estimate the conservation status of all vertebrates.

Over the past four decades terrestrial mammal populations are estimated to have declined by a quarter, marine fish by a fifth and freshwater fish by as much as 65%. Evolution Lost also highlights entire lineages such as marine turtles, pandas, rhinos and Darwin’s frogs, that are on the brink of being lost. The report concludes with a call for increased conservation capacity that takes an ecosystem level approach, and for serious discussions about overconsumption, population growth and poor governance

Evolution Lost can be viewed as an online book here 

Carbon Footprint Tool

A new Carbon Footprint tool has been developed at Stanford University, which allows you to calculate, from your life style and country, what your carbon footprint is.  The carbon footprint tool gives you the opportunity to take a critical view of your own energy consumption, and to find solutions to decrease their personal emissions.

This tool is part of the I2I - Inquiry to Insight - e-learning project, developed for students to learn about Climate Change in order to take action. The project has also created a virtual lab, where you can set up your own virtual ocean acidification experiment. In the virtual lab, you can complete the procedural steps of the experiment: setting up replicate cultures, feeding the larvae, making water changes, and observing the changes in the larvae over time. Then, you set up slides for measurement (morphometric) analysis. You then make the larval measurements yourselves on a subset of the larvae (a different subset for each person), calculate the treatment means, and then can compare your subsample results to the entire statistical sample. The data you analyze are actual data addressing this question gathered by I2I scientists

UNEP Sponge Report

A groundbreaking new report, Deep-sea Sponge Grounds: Reservoirs of Biodiversity, which highlights deep-sea sponge science and conservation was recently launched at the European Marine Biology Syposium, hosted by Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh. 

The report has been compiled by leading experts as part of the United Nations Environment Programme - World Conservation Monitoring Centre's (UNEP-WCMC) Biodiversity Series, and the UNEP Regional Seas Technical Report series. It is aimed at boosting the protection and sustainable management of these long-overlooked diverse and ancient habitats that, being slow-growing and long-surviving, are particularly vulnerable to human activities such as bottom-trawl fishing. 

The report also draws attention to how little is currently known - a global map of sponges does not yet exist - and demonstrates the crucial need to develop fuller knowledge and understanding of these habitats together with raising awareness as to why sponge grounds are important and the threats they face.

Press coverage of the report has been extensive, including features in the Scotsman, Daily Express, the Sydney Morning Herald and on the BBC.

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Fast Moving Front

In the September 2010 Issue of Thomson Reuters Science Watch, cold water corals have been identified as a 'Fast Moving Front', having the largest percentage increase in number of core papers from one period to the next in the field of geosciences.

The 2006 Science paper 'REEFS OF THE DEEP: THE BIOLOGY AND GEOLOGY OF COLD-WATER CORAL ECOSYSTEMS'  has been identified as one of the most cited papers on cold-water corals in recent years. On the Science Watch website, J. Murray Roberts, one of the co-authors, answers a few questions about the paper, how he became involved in cold-water coral research and his future research direction. 

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Welcome to the new lophelia.org!

Lophelia.org logo

Welcome to the new and improved Lophelia.org!

5 years after it first went online, the internet's most detailed website on cold-water corals has been totally redesigned and updated. With a host of new features including regular Twitter updates, a dedicated Email Discussion Group and YouTube video channel, the new Lophelia.org is ready to help you stay up to date with the latest developments cold-water coral research and conservation around the world.

Dive in and explore the new content!