Marine scientists have found new coral species and a rare sponge reef off the coast which, it is hoped, could even lead to the discovery of new antibiotics.

The scientists used the Marine Institute’s remotely-operated vehicle Holland 1 to capture, what they say, is a number of firsts in Irish waters. They spent three weeks at sea on the ILV Granuaile investigating Ireland’s deep ocean 480km off the west coast.

“This is the first time I have seen a sponge reef like this in nearly 20 years of studying the deep north east Atlantic,” said Kerry Howell of Plymouth University.

This is an important find. Sponges play a key role in the marine ecosystem providing habitat for other species and recycling nutrients. They may even be a source of new antibiotics. These new data will help us to better understand where and why these reefs occur.

The high-definition ROV-mounted video captured a species of octocoral of the genus Corallium, which grows into huge fans with a delicate porcelain-like skeleton, and a species of black coral different to others described to date, which may prove to be an entirely new species.

A Bamboo coral found in Ireland’s deep ocean.

The survey actually confirmed that Irish deep-waters are a haven for the rare and delicate deep-sea black corals which, despite the name, are actually very colourful. The team also reported areas of potential ‘sponge reef’ on the Rockall Bank, a highly unusual accumulation of living and dead sponges forming a complex habitat for many other creatures. Such formations are very rare and have previously only been recorded in Canadian waters.

“We are very pleased to discover what appear to be new coral species and a rare sponge reef, neither of which have been previously documented in Irish waters,” said David O’Sullivan of the Marine Institute who is chief scientist on the SeaRover survey.

This delicate Octocoral, Corallium, has never been recorded in Irish waters before.

These sensitive habitats are very important and this study is key to getting a better understanding of Ireland’s deep sea. Our key objective is to discover, protect and monitor Ireland’s rich offshore marine biodiversity so we can manage our marine resources effectively. Without a knowledge of what lives on our seabed we are at risk of never fully understanding and appreciating Ireland’s invaluable marine environment.

A very rare giant hydroid of unknown species. Two were seen on the survey. Scientists discovered a rare sponge reef and new corals in Ireland’s deep ocean.

Louise Allcock of NUI Galway, who is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Marine Institute to study the pharmaceutical potential of deep-sea corals and sponges, said the project highlighted co-operation between Irish and international marine scientists “helping us to further our understanding of these sensitive ecosystems and has also been able to provide training opportunities and sea-going experience for young scientists”.

The ‘SeaRover’ survey is the second of three planned expeditions funded by the Government and the EU’s European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. This year’s expedition extended the habitat exploration area to the Rockall Bank, the farthest offshore extent of Ireland’s Economic Exclusive Zone.

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