Unique coral found in deep Arctic Ocean is "almost certainly a new species"

In the bitterly cold waters of the Arctic Ocean, scientists have discovered a strange and unique coral that’s “almost certainly a new species.”

Unique coral found in deep Arctic Ocean is "almost certainly a new species"

When you think about corals, you might imagine tropical temperatures, crystal-clear waters, and clownfish. However, corals are incredibly diverse and inhabit many different ecosystems across the planet, from the idyllic atolls of the Pacific to the darkest depths of the ocean. There's even an abundance of Arctic corals located along the edge of the continental shelf where water temperatures are just above zero degrees Celsius (32°F).

The latest discovery was made by a team of researchers from the The Nippon Foundation-Nekton Ocean Census that’s currently on a mission to document the depths of the Arctic Ocean. They set off from Tromsø in northern Norway on May 3 aboard the ship RV Kronprins Haakon and will be wrapping up their expedition this week.

The potentially new species of coral were found living on the stalk of a crinoid, also known as sea lilies. Ocean Census released a video of their experts discussing the discovery – and, as you can see, they’re pretty excited about it.

“We've seen very, very few corals since we've been here in the Arctic. On the dive today, we saw lots of these crinoids growing, and what we found on this crinoid is a coral living on the crinoid stalk. It's almost certainly a new species,” Professor Alex Rogers, Principal Investigator at Ocean Census, explains in the video.

“It really demonstrates coevolution in the deep sea but also how effective the remotely operated vehicle [ROV] is. We get the specimens in such good condition that those sorts of relationships are actually preserved,” Rogers added.

The curious coral is just one of the expedition's finds over the past few weeks. They previously explored the Svyatogor Ridge, a site at a depth of around 3,700 meters (12,140 feet) within the Arctic mid-ocean ridge system that’s loaded with hydrothermal vents. In this strange environment, rich in methane and sulfur, their ROV snooped around the array of chemosynthetic communities that live here, including tube worms and shelled bivalve mollusks.

The expedition is especially significant because this environment is facing several existential threats. Along with being impacted by climate change, some of these unique habitats are being eyed-up for deep-sea mining. This would essentially involve dredging the seafloor looking for nuggets of rare metals, like lithium and cobalt, potentially causing irrevocable damage to the fragile ecosystems that dwell here.

“Understanding every aspect of our ecosystem holds immense significance. Today, we possess new tools, empowering us to uncover discoveries previously beyond our reach. Innovations such as eDNA analysis, advancements in taxonomy, and machine learning represent sophisticated means of gathering essential information,” Jan-Gunnar Winther, Pro-rector for Research and Development at UiT The Arctic University of Norway and Specialist Director at the Norwegian Polar Institute located in Tromsø, said in a statement.

“With our current capabilities to amass vast amounts of data and consolidate it effectively, there lies tremendous potential. If this data is made accessible and shared widely, not just by those who collected it, it could have a profound impact on scientific understanding,” Winther added.