Italy's Newfound Coral Reef Is a Special Breed

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The reef extends for at least 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers), but scientists suspect its reach is much farther. Scientific Reports

When you think about coral reefs, you probably imagine bright blue waters somewhere in the Caribbean or Australia. The Adriatic Sea off Italy's east coast is certainly nice, but it's likely not what you picture.

But that might change in light of a recent study published in Scientific Reports that outlines the presence and environment of Italy's first coral reef.

"In the early 1990s I worked as a marine biologist in the Maldives," Giuseppe Corriero, lead author of the study and the director of the department of biology at the University of Bari Aldo Moro, told The Guardian. "But I never thought I'd find a coral reef, 30 years later, a stone's throw from my house."

Deep water reef

The reef is located along the southern reaches of Puglia, the region that makes up the "heel" of Italy's "boot," not far from the town of Monopoli. It marks the first known Mediterranean mesophotic coral reef. The reef extends for at least 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers), but it likely covers more ground than that. The reef isn't a continuous one and spreads over at least 0.019 square miles (0.05 kilometers), or roughly the area of a polo field. Researchers believe the reef is larger than this, however, extending perhaps many miles along the coast.

Mesophotic reefs aren't as well known as other reef systems since they are harder to study. Unlike their shallow water counterparts, these reefs grow in deeper waters, sometimes 98 to 131 feet (30 to 40 meters) below the ocean surface. This is, according to the U.S. Ocean Service, near the limits of traditional scuba diving while also too close to the surface to justify the costs of having deep-diving devices like remote-operated vehicles or other submersibles to explore.

"The famous Australian or Maldivian coral reefs rise almost to the surface of the water, making the most of the sunlight that is the real fuel of these ecosystems," Corriero explained. Their lack of access to sunlight results in less vibrant colors than the shallow water reefs.

A picture of Italy's mesophotic coral reef
Just because the colors are dimmer doesn't mean that life doesn't thrive in this reef. Scientific Reports

The coral that builds mesophotic reefs are light-dependent, but they can also tolerate the middle-to-low light conditions at the deeper depths of the ocean, according to the researchers. Yet coral systems like this one in the Adriatic thrive with diverse life despite these dim conditions. Researchers found the presence of 153 groups of taxa, or groups of organisms, including sea sponges, sea worms, moss animals, mollusks and members of the Cnidaria phylum, which includes jellyfish, coral and anemones.

As shallow water reefs experience bleaching and harmful other effects due to climate change, some researchers believe mesophotic reefs can serve as a "lifeboat" for some species, and that they should be considered when planning ocean conservation initiatives. Local and port authorities in Puglia are planning to do just that by creating a new protected marine area near Monopoli in light of the recent discovery, according to Italian newspaper La Gazetta del Mezzogiorno.