The largest deep-sea coral reef ever mapped has been mapped by scientists off the US Atlantic coast

WASHINGTON (AP) — Scientists have mapped the largest coral reef in the ocean depths hundreds of miles off the U.S. Atlantic coast.

While researchers have known since the 1960s that some coral existed outside the Atlantic, the shape of the reef remained a mystery until new underwater mapping technology made it possible to create 3D images of the ocean floor.

"The largest coral reef ever known is right under our noses, waiting to be discovered," said oceanographer Derek Sowers of the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust.

Sowers and other scientists, including many National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationRecently published maps of the reef In Journal Geomatics.

The reef extends about 310 miles (499 kilometers) from Florida to South Carolina and reaches 68 miles (109 kilometers) wide at some points. The total area is approximately three times the size of Yellowstone National Park.

"It's eye-opening — the scale of it is breathtaking," said Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who was not involved in the study.

The rock was found at a depth of 655 feet to 3,280 feet (200 m to 1,000 m), where sunlight does not penetrate. Unlike tropical coral reefs, where photosynthesis is vital for growth, even corals must filter food particles from the water for energy.

Scientists said deep coral reefs provide habitat for sharks, swordfish, sea stars, octopus, shrimp and many other types of fish.

Tropical reefs are better known to scientists – and snorkelers – because they are more accessible. The world's largest tropical coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, extends for approximately 1,430 miles (2,301 kilometers).

Sowers said it's possible that larger rocks will be discovered in the deep sea in the future because about 75% of the world's ocean floor has been mapped in high-resolution. Only 50% of America's offshore waters have been mapped. Maps of the ocean floor are made using high-resolution sonar instruments carried on ships.

Deep reefs cover more of the ocean floor than tropical reefs. Both types of habitats are vulnerable to similar risks, including disturbance from climate change and oil and gas drilling, said Eric Cordes, a marine biologist at Temple University and co-author of the new study.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Science and Educational Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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