Image: New coral species
NOAA, WHOI, the Alvin Group, 2004 GOA Expedition
Unlike better-known hard corals, deep sea corals live in pitch-black, cold waters. A newly found deep sea species, shown here, also has very unusual and impressive skirt of long tentacles on its trunk that billow in the current.
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updated 12/1/2008 11:33:07 AM ET 2008-12-01T16:33:07

A spectacular new species of coral has been discovered thriving in veritable forests on the peaks of undersea mountains off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The large candelabra or fanlike "bamboo corals" have been spotted by marine scientists growing to heights in excess of 3 feet (1 meter). They are so abundant they create oases for numerous other deep sea creatures.

"They look really, really big when you're underwater," said marine biologist Peter Etnoyer of Texas A&M University. Etnoyer is also the co-author of the Deep Sea News blog which appears on the Discovery News Web site.

Etnoyer and his colleagues discovered the corals at depths of 2,300 to 3,300 feet (700 to 1,000 meters) in the famous Alvin submersible. A paper officially describing the new species as well as giving it an official scientific name will appear in the late December issue of the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

Bits and pieces of the mysterious bamboo corals had been seen for years, brought up in the nets of trawlers, Etnoyer said. But none of these fragments hinted at the size, beauty and importance of the corals and for other life at such depths.

"Bamboo corals have remarkable scientific utility," says coral researcher Tom Shirley of Texas A & M's Harte Research Institute. "Their growth rings are imprinted with carbon isotopes that allow us to unravel their growth history." Cross-sections exhibit growth rings that indicate some colonies can be 150 years old and more.

Deep sea fans like the bamboo coral are animals that feed on suspended organic material that floats by. Unlike better-known hard corals, deep-sea corals live in pitch-black, cold waters. The new deep-sea species also has very unusual and impressive skirt of long tentacles on its trunk that billow in the current. It's a feature that can only be seen and appreciated by looking at the living organism, as they could with Alvin, Etnoyer explained.

The deep-sea corals were also clearly providing cover and solid foothold for fish, crabs and other animals — essentially a shelter — in the otherwise mucky, largely deserted expanses of deep ocean floor.

"They provide a lot of shelter, food and breeding grounds," said deep-sea coral researcher Di Tracey of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. That makes them important for fisheries, since deep sea fish can't thrive without places to breed.

Deep-sea corals of the same genus Isidella appear off the coast of New Zealand as well, Tracey said. That's one reason why marine biologists are meeting there on Dec. 5 for the Fourth International Deep Sea Coral Symposium.

"We have a lot of deep-sea corals in the world that haven't been described," Tracey said. "We've known about them since the 18th century, but they've been sort of out of sight, out of mind."

Now with the help of technological advances like the Alvin and remotely controlled submersible vehicles, these unusual creatures can finally be given the scientific attention they deserve, she said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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