Three New Deep-Sea Coral Species Discovered in the North Pacific

October 29, 2020

Long-living corals could support medical research, signal need to stall deep-sea mining

Arlington, Va. (Oct. 29, 2020) – Three new species of black coral have been discovered in deep waters of the North Pacific Ocean. Discovered on deep seamounts and ridges, these new species are all black corals, a group of deep-sea corals that includes some of the longest living organisms on Earth, and that have been valued for a long time in many cultures for their possible disease-fighting capabilities.

The new black coral species were revealed in a study published today in the scientific journal Zootaxa, co-authored by Conservation International’s ocean science technical advisor Daniel Wagner and the Smithsonian Institution U.S. National Museum of Natural History’s research associate Dennis Opresko.

The black corals were found across a wide range of deep-sea locations, including around the Hawaiian Islands, Johnston Atoll, California and across high seas waters of the Prime Crust Zone – an area with some of the highest known concentrations of deep-sea minerals.

The study analyzed samples and imagery collected during previous expeditions to describe the new species. While the age of these new black coral species is unknown, they all belong to a group that include some of the longest-living organisms on Earth. Previous studies that have examined the lifespan of other black coral species have documented ages ranging from several centuries to millennia. In one case, a black coral species was found to be over 4,250 years old.

“These long-living corals are much like the redwoods of the ocean. They’re not only slow-growing and long-lived, but also provide important habitat for many other species,” said Wagner. “There is still so much to learn about these deep-sea corals, including the possibility that they could harbor clues to aid the treatment of disease, like certain cancers and other human illnesses. Mining their habitat could potentially wipe them out before we know their true value.”

The data used in the study was collected by previous expeditions using remotely operated vehicles, deep-water robots that are controlled from the ship. These expeditions used telepresence technology, meaning that high-resolution video and other data is streamed live over the Internet, allowing scientists and the public to view video from the seafloor in near real time.

These expeditions, of which Wagner was a participant, included close to 200 dives and sought to collect critical baseline information of deep-sea habitats across the Pacific Ocean. While a great wealth of new information was acquired during these expeditions, much remains to be learned. For instance, only about 20% of the ocean floor has been mapped to date, and Wagner has dedicated part of his career to mapping the high seas and coral reefs that thrive there.

Although active mining has not yet begun, there are 30 contracts granting companies rights to prospect for deep-sea minerals in international waters over a cumulative area of 1.5 million square kilometers of seafloor. There is concern about the impacts of deep-sea mining because many of the coral and other species that inhabit these deep-sea environments are very slow to grow and well-adjusted to the stable conditions below the sea. Once these habitats are disturbed, it would take a very long time for them to recover, if they can recover at all.

“Potential deep-sea mining of crusts is of particular concern, because the minerals of interest provide the very foundation for every species that inhabits the seafloor in these locations,” said Wagner. “The commercially valuable minerals carpet the seafloor in these locations, and to harvest them requires scraping the seafloor, effectively decimating anything that lives there.”

Earlier this year and as the International Seabed Authority continues developing regulations on deep-sea mining exploitation, Conservation International called for a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining to allow for additional time to increase our scientific understanding of the risks associated with this type of mining, and to further study the deep-sea environments that could be negatively impacted.

Photos and video of the new black coral species are available here.

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.