24 March 2009

Deep sea corals are thousands of years old

Radiocarbon studies put the age of Gerardia, a deep sea coral, at 2,000 to 3,000 years.
Colony of gold coral Gerardia(Image: NOAA's Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

Previous estimates, made by counting what were thought to be annual growth rings, put the maximum age for Gerardia at about 70 years.

Authors of the study urge a permanent ban on using Gerardia in the jewellery trade – there is currently a five-year moratorium on its use – and for protection of coral beds from deep-sea fishing. "On a human timescale, there is no sustainable harvest of these animals"

The finding may have grave implications for the conservation of the corals' ecosystems. "Because corals are so big, they form the habitat for many other species in the coral bed and if you take them away, it will take thousands of years for similarly sized organisms to grow back."

Preserving the coral could be useful for humans: "Given their slow growth, we may be able to use them as high-resolution records of past climate change".

Coral colony as old as the pyramids
Nora Schultz, News Scientist 23 Mar 09;
Giant deep-sea corals don't get around much, but what they lack in mobility they make up for in longevity. A new study has discovered that some coral colonies can "live" for more than 4000 years, smashing the previous lifespan estimates of 70 years, and showing that the animals grow far more slowly than was thought.

It is this extremely slow growth that is the secret of the corals' long life, says Brendan Roark, at Texas A&M University.

The finding may have grave implications for the conservation of the corals' ecosystems. "Because corals are so big, they form the habitat for many other species in the coral bed and if you take them away, it will take thousands of years for similarly sized organisms to grow back," says Roark.

The gold coral Gerardia and the black coral Leiopathes both grow several metres tall, at depths of up to 500 metres in oceans around the world. Whilst other studies had estimated their age at a few hundred years at most, Roark argues that what had been considered "annual" growth rings actually take much longer to form.
Real slow

The polyps that form coral are able to create massive reefs of the mineral calcium carbonate (CaCO3) over long time periods by adding successive thin layers to the base of the "cups" in which they live.

Using high-resolution radiocarbon dating, his team first studied Hawaiian corals for traces of "bomb-carbon" – a radioactive carbon isotope produced during nuclear tests in the 1950s. They found it only in wafer-thin (10-micrometre) layers on the outermost part of corals' skeleton. This suggests that even these tiny accretions took decades to build up.

Further carbon-dating measurements from layers deep inside the corals then revealed the oldest Gerardia samples to be 2742 years old, while the Leiopathes had been growing for a whopping 4265 years. This doesn't mean that the individual animals that secrete the coral themselves live for so long, just that the hollow "skeletons" they grow.
Jewellery ban

Roark asks for a permanent ban on using Gerardia in the jewellery trade – there is currently a five-year moratorium on its use – and for protection of coral beds from deep-sea fishing.

"On a human timescale, there is no sustainable harvest of these animals", he says. "We know next to nothing about how they spawn, settle and regenerate, but I have seen very few younger and smaller colonies, so even slow regeneration might not be a very likely option."

Roark also hopes that preserving the coral could be useful for humans: "Given their slow growth, we may be able to use them as high-resolution records of past climate change".

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810875106)

Oldest Sea Creatures Have Been Alive 4,000 Years
Andrea Thompson, livescience.com 23 Mar 09;

Deep-sea corals are the oldest living animals with a skeleton in the seas, claims new research that found a 4,265-year-old coral species off the coast of Hawaii.

Deep-sea corals, which are threatened by climate change and pollution like shallow water corals are, grow on seamounts (mountains rising from the seafloor that don't reach the ocean's surface) and continental margins at depths of about 1,000 to 10,000 feet (300 to 3,000 meters).

These corals play host to many other marine organisms, and are hotspots of ocean biodiversity. The largest coral reef system in the world is the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Big reefs are also found in the Red Sea, along the coast of Mexico and Belize, the Bahamas and the Maldives.

Samples of two species examined in the study, gold coral (Gerardia sp.) and deep-water black coral (Leiopathes sp.), were gathered from off the coast of Hawaii with submersibles.

Older ages

Previous estimates of the corals' ages, made by counting what were thought to be annual growth rings, put the maximum age for Gerardia sp. in Hawaii at about 70 years.

But radiocarbon studies had pinned ages of about 2,000 to 3,000 years on other Gerardia colonies in the Atlantic and Pacific. Similar dates were found for some Leiopathes specimens.

Brendan Roark of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and his colleagues made radiocarbon measurements of the skeletons of the Hawaiian specimens and came up with similarly ancient ages: about 2,742 years for Gerardia and 4,265 years for Leiopathes.

"These results show that Leiopathes is the oldest skeletal-accreting marine organism known and, to the best of our knowledge, the oldest colonial organism yet found," the study authors wrote. Their findings are detailed in the March 23 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The ages imply that the corals' skeletons grow much more slowly than previously thought, only a few micrometers a year (one micrometer is about the diameter of a human blood cell).

Of course, the tiny coral polyps that live inside the skeletons are only a few years old, meaning they are continually replaced for centuries to millennia while the supporting skeleton builds up around them.

Call for conservation

The authors noted that Hawaiian deep-sea corals, which support diverse fish and invertebrate communities, are under threats from bottom trawling, which damages the coral beds, harvesting for jewelry and other activities associated with commercial fishing.

Warming ocean waters and ocean acidification (the result of water absorbing the carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere) can also impact coral survival. A 2008 study estimated that the increasing acidity of the ocean could wipe out most corals in the ocean by 2050. These conditions could also make corals more susceptible to diseases.

If the corals disappear, the communities they support could go as well. Caribbean reef fish populations have suffered major losses in the last 15 years, according to a study in the March 19 issue of the journal Current Biology.

Roark and his fellow researchers for the new study say that the slow growth rates implied by their study make coral conservation even more critical, since the colonies are slow to replace what is lost.

"We suggest that any future harvesting be considered in the context of a nonrenewable resource framework," they wrote.

The study was funded in part by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

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