Researchers’ DIY Equipment Discovers Soft Coral Garden in Greenland’s Deep Sea

Nature

A new study by scientists from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, ZSL, and UCL featured the discovery of soft coral gardens off the deep sea in Greenland with the use of low-cost, innovative deep-sea video equipment that the research team built.

The report was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. It is the first habitat of its kind that was assessed and identified in the west Greenland area.

This discovery has important implications in managing deep-sea trawls that are operating just adjacent to the newly-discovered habitat. The researchers hope that the 486 square-kilometer area will be designated a Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem by the FAO UN to ensure its protection.

First author Stephen Long from the ZSL and UCL Geography said that the deep sea has usually been overlooked for exploration. He says that there are better maps of Mars compared to it.

According to him, their low-cost tool can withstand the deep-sea environment and lets researchers understand and manage our marine ecosystems better. He says they will work with the fishing industry and government of Greenland to ensure that the complex and fragile habitat can be protected.

The garden is in almost complete darkness, located 500m under the sea with pressures 50 times higher than the surface. It is a diverse and delicate habitat with a lot of cauliflower coral species and sponges, feather stars, hydrozoans, anemones, bryozoans, and brittle stars, among others.

ZSL’s Chris Yesson said that the gardens have one or more coral species situated on soft and hard bottom sand or rock. These support lots of different fauna. Considerable diversity exists among such garden communities.

This discovery is significant because we know so little about the habitats in the deep sea, even if they comprise 65% of our planet. The Greenland habitats’ distribution, nature, and their reaction to human activities are poorly known.

This is due to the expensive and challenging nature of deep-sea exploration. For one thing, ocean pressure rises one atmosphere for every 10 meters in depth. Thus, it has only been expensive, manned submersibles, and vehicles that are remotely operated that can tolerate such pressures.

The research team developed an inexpensive video sled that is towed, and steel-frame mounted which uses GoPro video cam and lasers and lights in pressurized housings. Its lasers combine high-powered pointers in do-it-yourself housings created in the UCL Institute of Making and with a little help from UCL’s Mechanical Engineering.

The team’s video sledge is as big as a Mini Cooper and is deployed at about 15 minutes per session in 18 different stations. A total of 1,239 images were extracted from video footage for analysis.

There were 44,035 faunal annotations, where anemones were found to be the most plentiful (15,531), along with cauliflower corals at 11,633. The maximum density measured for cauliflower corals was 9.36 corals for every square meter.

The team’s equipment impressively reached 1,500 meters in depth, which was remarkable enough to gain attention from researchers in other countries.

Yesson says that because the ocean comprises the largest habitat on our planet and the place that we know least, we must develop these cheap tools for exploring, describing, and informing management for this resource.

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