The cockscomb cup coral is a true stony coral that lives in the deep sea and in cold-water fjords rather than on shallow, tropical coral reefs. Like all corals, this species is closely related to anemones, jellyfishes, and other animals in the Phylum Cnidaria. Unlike shallow-water corals, cockscomb cup corals and other deep-water corals do not get their food from symbiotic algae living inside their cells. Instead, they are filter feeders and obtain all of their energy by picking individual plankton from the water that flows along deep-sea currents.
Wherever it lives, the cockscomb cup coral builds reefs that provide habitat for several other species of invertebrates and fishes. In some areas, this species can be the most common coral on reefs. Typically, this coral is found on deep seamounts and other deep-sea habitats, but some populations have recently been discovered thriving much shallower in productive fjords, particularly in southern Chile. Its normal depth range is greater than 3300 feet (1000 m), but Chilean populations live as shallow as 23 feet (7 m), making this region important to scientists who can conduct SCUBA-based research on this normally deep species.
Like all stony corals, the cockscomb cup coral builds a skeleton of calcium carbonate – a compound that will become increasingly more rare as the ocean acidifies (a phenomenon caused by the ocean’s absorption of acidic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). As deep waters are naturally more acidic than shallow waters, deep-water corals are particularly vulnerable to this problem. Unless people cut carbon dioxide emissions, scientists predict the waters in which deep-water corals live may eventually become acidic enough to literally dissolve their skeletons. Acidification not only risks the survival of this cockscomb cup coral and other corals but also the high numbers of other species that rely on coral reef structure as their primary habitat. Destructive fishing practices, most notably bottom trawling, also threaten deep-sea coral reefs by scraping corals right off of the bottom and flattening the three-dimensional habitat. Deep-water corals are very difficult to study, and the current status of cockscomb cup coral populations is unknown.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.