New species of coral discovered off Farallones


A rare coral species never seen before is growing in the water of the deep, cold Pacific a few miles offshore from the Sonoma County coast.

Unlike the corals that form spectacular reefs in the shallow waters of tropical oceans, the bone-white animal that biologist Gary Williams discovered is a solitary creature barely 15 inches tall, with a thousand mouths that feed on microscopic plankton borne by the current flowing past its whip-like stalk.

Williams, of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, found the new species in a rocky area of the sea floor about 30 miles west of Jenner in what is now the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The new coral is flourishing amid an abundance of other animals that include starfish, sea worms, snails, sponges, sea cucumbers, crabs, nurseries of catsharks and skates, and at least 34 varieties of other fish.

The coral was growing in an area of the sanctuary called the Rittenberg Bank. Among its relatives there and in the nearby Cochrane Bank are more than 1,000 other coral species with names well known to hobbyists with home aquariums: pink lace, cluster cup, Christmas tree, cockscomb, bubblegum, sea pens, sea fans and red whips.

After months studying every detail of the new coral’s body and comparing it with details of all the 200 other species in the group called Swiftia, he determined it was an entirely new species of gorgonian octocoral.

He named it Swiftia farallonesica in honor of its home in the sanctuary and has published its description in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences.

“The hard corals that build reefs near the surface are in increasing danger now from the warming oceans and their increasing acidity,” Williams said, “but up to now we haven’t found evidence that these soft corals … in deeper water have been affected. But the ocean’s a big place, its currents and sea temperatures vary, and we can’t tell when they’ll be threatened too.”

Williams said he is concerned that most people believe all corals in the world build reefs. But the reef builders comprise only 15 percent of the estimated 5,350 coral species worldwide, he said.

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article: David Perlman
photo: NOAA



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