Scientists have long known that corals are found far beyond shallow, tropical waters. Since the 1800s, researchers on multiyear voyages have collected coral samples from colonies found at much deeper, darker, colder spots in the ocean.
In the past two decades, coral also has surfaced on trawlers working in more remote fishing grounds in the hunt for an increasingly elusive catch. And that’s when the importance of these invertebrate animals became apparent, and when Rhian Waller began her Ph.D. research on the reproduction and development of the seldom-seen creatures.
Waller’s research now focuses on how factors such as climate change, fishing and oil exploration affect deep-sea coral reproduction, and what effect that altered life cycle could have on the rest of the marine ecosystem.
“We’re now beginning to realize that these reefs in the deep sea are very similar to the reefs in shallow water and can be very important to certain fisheries species,” says Waller, a University of Maine assistant research professor in the School of Marine Sciences. “These corals have thousands of associated species that live on and around them, so we’re starting to realize they’re important deep-sea ecosystems builders, just like corals in shallow waters.”
Earlier this year, Waller received a more than $78,000 RAPID Grant from the National Science Foundation and a $30,000 National Geographic Society award to establish three long-term monitoring sites in Chile, where she will sample corals for reproductive ecology studies. Waller also received another $9,000 from UMaine to explore Maine’s coastal areas for deepwater emergent coral habitat sites, and $48,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue a long-time series in Alaska of red tree corals.
Through each project, Waller hopes to show the importance of deep-sea coral systems to the ocean ecosystem.
“If we continue to damage these coral habitats, we’re going to damage the fish and invertebrate populations that live around them,” Waller says. “Even though they’re out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and many people don’t know they’re there, we have to start to explore and research why these ecosystems are important.”