World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast (2024)

World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast (1)

The world's largest deep-sea coral reef, which spans an area roughly the size of Vermont, has been uncovered "right on the doorstep" of the southeast U.S. coastline, new seafloor maps reveal. The dark-dwelling, ghostly corals likely support a wide variety of marine creatures that we didn't know were there, researchers say.

In a new study, published Jan. 12 in the journal Geomatics, scientists collated data from 31 multibeam sonar mapping surveys and 23 submersible dives to build a map of the Blake Plateau — a massive sloping shelf located around 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the U.S. coastline between North Carolina and Florida.

The new maps revealed thousands of previously unknown "mounds" of deep-sea corals, also known as cold-water corals, spread almost continuously across an area covering 6.4 million acres (2.6 million hectares) between 1,640 to 3,280 feet (500 to 1,000 meters) beneath the surface. The highest abundance of corals was located in an area the researchers dubbed "Million Mounds," which is around 158 miles (254 km) long and 26 miles (42 km) wide.

Related: 10 mind-boggling deep sea discoveries in 2023

The highly complex network of corals is "the largest deep-sea coral reef habitat discovered to date," researchers wrote in a statement.

Marine scientists have known that the Blake Plateau harbors deep-sea corals since the 1960s. But until now, they lacked the technology and funding required to properly assess how abundant they are, study lead author Derek Sowers, an oceanographer at the University of New Hampshire and mapping operations manager for the non-profit organization Ocean Exploration Trust, told Live Science in an email.

"We knew there would be many coral mounds to map here," Sowers said. But it was "impressive and surprising" to reveal just how many of the mounds there really were, he added.

World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast (2)

The coral expanse lies directly beneath the Gulf Stream — a deep, nutrient-rich current of warm water that runs northward along the eastern U.S. coast. The researchers believe this subsurface superhighway likely provides the corals with all the food they need to thrive in such large concentrations.

It's possible there could be even larger deep-sea coral reefs waiting to be found beneath other similar ocean currents across the world, Sowers said.

Related: What percentage of the ocean have we mapped?

Deep-sea coral reefs are very different from tropical coral reefs. They dwell in waters that can reach as cold as 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) and can live for thousands of years.

Unlike tropical reefs, the deep-sea variants are mainly white because the cold water corals do not harbor the same colorful symbiotic algae that give their warm-water counterparts vibrant hues and provide them with energy via photosynthesis. As a result, they look very similar to tropical reefs that have experienced coral bleaching — a disease where heat-stressed corals expel their symbiotic algae and die off.

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The newly discovered reefs are made predominantly of one species of coral, Desmophyllum pertusum (formerly known as Lophelia pertusa), with a small mix of other corals from the genera Enallopsammia and Madrepora. These few species provide a home to countless other creatures, including sharks, octopuses, crustaceans, swordfish, eels, sea stars, sponges and worms, as well as commercially important fish species like hake, Sowers said.

Most of the newly mapped reefs lie within a protected area, known as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern, which was created in 2010, Sowers said. This means the corals are shielded from destructive seafloor fishing practices that threaten other unprotected reefs around the globe, he added.

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World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast (4)

Harry Baker

Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.

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    World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast (2024)

    FAQs

    World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast? ›

    The reef is around 310 miles (500 km) long, extending from Florida to South Carolina. In some places, it is as wide as 68 miles (110 km). Representative image of a coral reef. Scientists have finally been able to map the largest-known deep-sea coral reef, which is located off the Atlantic coast of the United States.

    What is the world's largest deep coral reef? ›

    The secret is out: roughly 80-200 miles offshore the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida lies the world's largest deep-sea coral province—the Blake Plateau. Long considered a Southern treasure, scientists have now identified the Blake Plateau's coral coverage as the largest deep-sea coral reef habitat on Earth.

    Which largest reef in the world is located off the coast of North America? ›

    World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast. A new deep-sea mapping project has revealed near-continuous reefs of cold-water corals spanning an area the size of Vermont just off the southeast U.S. coastline.

    Is the Great Barrier Reef the largest coral reef in the world off the coast of Australia? ›

    Stretching for 1,429 miles over an area of approximately 133,000 square miles , the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world. The reef is located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, in the Coral Sea.

    Where is the world's largest coral reef system located? ›

    The Great Barrier Reef is a site of remarkable variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia. It contains the world's largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc.

    Where are the 3 largest coral reefs in the world? ›

    The Florida Keys Reef Tract is the third largest living coral barrier reef system in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System off the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. It is also the only extensive reef system in the continental United States.

    What is the 2 biggest coral reef in the world? ›

    Extending nearly 1,000 km (620 miles) from the northern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula toward the Bay Islands in northern Honduras, the Mesoamerican Reef is second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

    Which country has the largest brain coral in the world? ›

    See the world's largest brain coral at Kelleston Drain | Tobago.

    What predator hunts around a coral reef? ›

    Barracuda (Sphyraena spp.) are fierce predatory fish that patrol outer reef areas in large schools. Like many predators, they have evolved as extremely fast swimmers, with streamlined, torpedo-like bodies. And they are efficient killers, using conical, razor-sharp teeth to quickly rip prey to shreds.

    What and where is the largest thing on earth built by living beings? ›

    The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world's biggest single structure made by living organisms. This reef structure is composed of and built by billions of tiny organisms, known as coral polyps. It supports a wide diversity of life and was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981.

    What is the largest structure ever made by life on Earth? ›

    The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world's biggest single structure made by living organisms. This reef structure is composed of and built by billions of tiny organisms, known as coral polyps. It supports a wide diversity of life and was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981.

    Is Florida's coral reef dead? ›

    Corals in Florida and the Caribbean faced a record-setting underwater heat wave in 2023. By 15 September, many areas had endured more than 20 weeks with ocean temperatures 1°C above the average during the hottest month of the year, causing a mass coral die-off.

    Why is the Great Barrier Reef dying? ›

    The growing combination of rising water temperatures, poorer water quality from sediment run-off and pollution, as well as more severe cyclones and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, are just some of the threats creating a perfect storm for our reef and the iconic animals that depend on it.

    How much of the Great Barrier Reef has died? ›

    Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016. Mass coral bleaching, a global problem triggered by climate change, occurs when unnaturally hot ocean water destroys a reef's colorful algae, leaving the coral to starve.

    What is the largest reef in the Gulf of Mexico? ›

    Arrecife Alacranes, Spanish for "Scorpion Reef," is the largest reef in the southern Gulf of Mexico.

    What are the deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico? ›

    These deep-sea species include stony branching corals, cup corals, octocorals, and black corals; similar to the types and orders seen on some shallow reefs.

    Where are the 3 largest or longest coral reefs located? ›

    The World's 7 Largest Coral Reefs
    • Great Barrier Reef, Australia. ...
    • Red Sea Coral Reef, Israel, Egypt and Djibouti. ...
    • New Caledonia Barrier Reef, South Pacific. ...
    • MesoAmerican Barrier Reef, Atlantic Ocean. ...
    • Florida Reef, Florida. ...
    • Andros Coral Reef, Bahamas. ...
    • Saya Del Malha, Indian Ocean.

    What is the coral reef found in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas? ›

    Some of the world's healthiest coral reefs can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Texas coast. Sheltered in a deep, cool habitat far from shore, the reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary boast a stunning amount of coral coverage.

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