The narrow stretch of water known as the Strait of Messina, where the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis swallowed sailors and ships, hides the world's largest forest of black coral, according to a new survey of the Mediterranean sea bed.
Using an underwater robot, marine biologists at Italy's Institute for Environmental Protection and Research found almost 30,000 colonies of Antipathella subpinnata coral at a depth of between180 and 328 feet (55 and 100 meters).
The coral was found near the town of Scilla, off the coast Calabria in southern Italy.
"In that stretch of water, images taken by the robot showed a seascape completely dominated by spectacular tree-like colonies of black coral, some more than 3.3 feet (1 meter) high. This is the first time these rare species are observed in their natural habitat," biologist Eva Salvati told Discovery News.
A living organism that grows like a plant in deep sea waters, black coral derives its scientific name from the Greek words "anti," for against, and "pathos," for disease. Indeed, black coral amulets were once believed to protect against diseases and evil spirits.
The most highly sought after of all coral species for their use in jewelry, all black corals are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which records species at risk of extinction if trade is not controlled.
The ISPRA researchers also discovered five colonies of the rare black coral Antipathes dichotoma.
"We are talking of an extremely rare species: only five samples have ever been collected and studied. The last sample was found in the Gulf of Naples in 1946. It was then donated to Harvard University," Salvati said.
The robot that helped find the coral can take video and samples of marine species and has proven to be an important tool for the preservation of Calabria's coast, according to Silvio Greco, Calabria's regional councilor for the environment.
"It allows us to better understand the marine ecosystem and its reactions to natural and human-induced changes," Greco said in a statement.
The town of Scilla, near the site of the coral discovery, was described by the ancient Greek writer Homer, as being home to a six-headed sea monster named Scilla. The monster flashed three rows of sharp teeth in each of its six heads and rumbled along on 12 feet.
Not not far from Scylla's cave, on the opposite Sicilian shore, lived another sea monster, Charybdis, who sucked passing ships into its vortex along that narrow stretch of water.
Together, Scylla and Charybdis made the Strait of Messina one of the Mediterranean's most insidious passages: ships sailing there were almost certain to be destroyed by one of the monsters. Could the black coral have contributed to the region's lore? Perhaps only indirectly, said Salvati.
"Indeed, there are very strong currents right where the black coral was found. I doubt there could be a direct link with the myth since the coral grows too deeply to be seen from the surface. However, many unknown marine species appear to live at that depth," Salvati said.
Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist who authored "The First Fossil Hunters," a book which explores the connection between Greek and Roman myths and the fossil beds around the Mediterranean, found the discovery of black coral colonies near the mythical Scylla "intriguing."
"Ancient authors such as Aristotle, Vergil, Pliny and Pausanias described the Mediterranean as the home to many different species of sea monsters, giant octopus and squid," Mayor told Discovery News. "Giant eels were reported by tuna fishermen between 1740 and the early 1900s — maybe they live in the deep underwater ravines lined with black coral!"