Coral reef just discovered in Amazon already under threat

26 Apr 2016

The surprising discovery of a new, large coral reef in the murky waters of the Amazon is already being tempered with the realisation that it’s under threat.

Red, green and brown algae. 34 species of seaweed. 61 different types of sponge. Cnidaria and 73 species of reef fish. The discovery of a coral reef at the mouth of the Amazon, measuring 9,500km2 in total, spreading from Guiana to Maranhão in Brazil, is amazing.

Two shocks

Firstly, it’s amazing that something so significant, so rare around the world, can have gone unnoticed for so long. Secondly, it’s surprising in that coral isn’t supposed to survive in dark, murky water that blocks out most sunlight.

Combine the two surprises and there’s the potential that fragile marine life, under threat globally from pollutants and rising sea temperatures, might be surviving better than we think.

Noted in Science Advances, the find by oceanographer Patricia Yager, scientist Rodrigo Moura and their team of near 40 researchers is a world first.

Packed with a muddy plume – 20pc of river flow into the sea globally is represented by the Amazon – this was not an area scientists expected delicate organisms of fluctuating success to survive. Tropical shelves are their domain, usually.

Yager was contacted by one of her soon-to-be colleagues about investigating the potential of a reef there, with her response being: “You know how muddy it is there, how could there possibly be reef there?”

But a short dredge later Yager’s team found “beautiful, colourful reef animals that I had no idea were down there,” she told the LA Times.

Irish aid

The discovery of more reefs can help us better understand how durable the species that dwell there actually are. Last summer, a major, shallow reef was found by Irish marine scientists 300km off the Kerry coast.

The incredible coral reef discovered in Porcupine Bank Canyon. Image via QuERCi/Graham Ryan

The incredible coral reef discovered in Porcupine Bank Canyon. Image via QuERCi/Graham Ryan

The team aboard the MV Celtic Explorer, which scanned the seabed along the route taken to lay the world’s first transatlantic cable back in 1857 as part of its efforts to map the ocean’s seabed, made the exciting find in an area called the Porcupine Bank Canyon.

The same week, a similarly exciting discovery was made in the Red Sea, with colourful visualisations made despite hidden, dark, depths.

Scientists from the UK and Israel studied corals at depths below 50 metres, finding brightly glowing specimens, coloured vastly differently to their shallowe-dwelling cousins.

Threats everywhere

Already, though, just days after the official Amazonian discovery, the reef is threatened. Fishing and oil drilling in the region – of which 80 exploratory blocks have been set aside – could remove something we barely knew existed.

Of course, direct, immediate human-made problems for reefs around the world are being coupled with more gradual issues like coral bleaching from global warming.

Last year, we reported that the third global coral bleaching event on record had begun, with the spread of warming waters damaging the underwater ecosystems, starting in the north Pacific in the summer of 2014 and spreading into the south Pacific and Indian oceans in late 2015.

It seems that the US coast was being hit particularly hard, with 95pc of its coral reefs becoming exposed to bleaching conditions.

Amazon river image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic