Scientists Discover ‘Breathtaking Mix’ of Biodiversity in Galápagos Deep-Sea Reefs
Designated as a protected area in 1998, the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest marine protected areas on Earth. Covering approximately 51,352 square miles, the GMR is home to Galápagos penguins, Galápagos brown pelicans, Galápagos sea lions, the blue-footed booby and other unique animal species.
Recently, scientists discovered ancient coral reefs supporting “a breathtaking mix” of marine life in the deep waters of the GMR, a press release from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) said. The previously undocumented reefs sit at a depth of 1,310 to 1,970 feet in the center of the archipelago, at the top of a previously unmapped seamount.
“They are pristine and teeming with life – pink octopus, batfish, squat lobsters and an array of deep-sea fish, sharks and rays,” said Dr. Michelle Taylor, a marine biologist at the University of Essex and co-leader of the expedition in the submersible human-occupied vehicle (HOV) Alvin, as The Guardian reported.
Taylor and Dr. Stuart Bank, Senior Marine Researcher at the Charles Darwin Foundation, were the first to record the novel reef structure while driving Alvin, the press release said.
“Exploring, mapping and sampling the Galápagos Platform with Alvin and Atlantis represents an opportunity to apply 21st-century deep-submergence and seafloor mapping technologies and innovative deep-sea imaging techniques to reveal the beauty and complexity of the volcanic and biological processes that makes the Galápagos so unique,” said Daniel Fornari, a marine geologist and Emeritus Research Scholar at WHOI, who is a co-lead of the expedition, in the press release.
Fornari has mapped and sampled the Galápagos marine environment for more than two decades.
Alvin was recently upgraded with an ultra-high definition video imaging system that is able to capture clear video of the reefs, as well as increased sampling capabilities to collect delicate reef specimens.
The scientists said the discovery of the pristine reef structure gave them hope for healthy reefs to thrive even though rising ocean surface temperatures and acidification have threatened corals throughout the world, reported The Guardian.
The existence of the reefs also showed how effective management and conservation can protect marine environments.
“This is encouraging news. It reaffirms our determination to establish new marine protected areas in Ecuador and to continue promoting the creation of a regional marine protected area in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. The richness of the yet explored depths of our ocean is another reason to strive towards achieving the commitments of the Global Ocean Alliance 30×30, which aims to protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, aligning sustainable economic activities with conservation,” said the Minister of Environment of Ecuador Jose Antonio Dávalos in the press release.
Before the discovery of the new reef structure, Wellington Reef in the northern part of the Galápagos archipelago, off the Darwin Island coast, was believed to be one of the only shallow coral reefs in the Galápagos to have survived the El Niño event of 1982 and 1983. The discovery indicates that protected coral reefs in the deep waters of the GMR have likely been around for centuries, harboring marine communities that are diverse and potentially unique.
“The captivating thing about these reefs is that they are very old and essentially pristine, unlike those found in many other parts of the world’s oceans. This gives us reference points to understand their importance for marine natural biodiversity heritage, connectivity with regional MPAs, as well as their role in providing goods and services such as carbon cycling and fisheries. It also helps us reconstruct past ocean environments to understand modern climate change,” Banks said.
Banks went on to say that modern research expeditions have explored less than five percent of the known GMR, 95 percent of which is covered by open waters. Banks believes it is probable that more reef structures exist at various depths.
Taylor said the discovery of the reefs is an important one for deep-sea habitats.
“The discovered reef is novel for several reasons – in shallow reefs where finding 10-20% of coral cover would be considered a relatively unhealthy reef, in the deep-sea this is the norm. Dead coral skeletons making up the remaining 80-90% still provide homes for a huge diversity of life, which is less reliant on the live sections of coral,” Taylor said in the press release. “However, the reefs we’ve found in the last few days have 50-60% live coral in many areas, which is very rare indeed. This newly discovered reef is potentially an area of global significance — a canary in the mine for other reefs globally — a site we can monitor over time to see how a pristine habitat evolves with our current climate crisis.”