News

New species of soft coral discovered in Scottish waters

Published: 12 Jan 2022 08:45

Find underlines importance of biodiversity.

 Scottish Government scientists, collaborating with a Spanish university, have uncovered a new family and species of deepwater soft coral, from seas to the west of Scotland.

Scientists say the discovery of the coral, or seapen demonstrates there is still much to learn about the deep sea around our coasts and highlights the importance of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as a key tool in conservation efforts.

Specimens were recovered from the continental slopes and plains of the Rockall Trough at depths of up to 2000 meters over a period of almost a decade up to 2019.

Seapens from the deep sea are known to be both poorly understood and rarely encountered, leading the team of scientists to preserve samples for analysis.

These were studied in collaboration with the internationally renowned coral expert Dr Pablo Lopez-Gonzalez from the University of Seville, using a combination of traditional methods and cutting-edge genetic analysis.

Due to their appearance, the specimens were initially thought to be  part of  a family of seapens known as Umbellula.  However, genetic results, backed by microscopic study of minute skeletal structures, revealed them to be not only a new species but belonging to a seapen family completely new to science.

The discovery may lead academics to revise older ideas of deep sea animal diversity.

The new species has been formally named Pseudumbellula scotiae - the first part due to its overall physical similarity to Umbellula and the second part in honour of the huge contributions to science and conservation in our deep waters made by the Scottish Government’s Marine Research Vessel Scotia.

Environment and Land Reform Minister Mairi McAllan said: "This is an important and exciting discovery made by combining traditional and modern scientific techniques and I would like to congratulate the teams involved.

"This work suggests that sub-sea biodiversity is far more diverse than previously believed and demonstrates that international co-operation is vital to increasing our understanding of the natural world. I am delighted that Scottish Government marine scientists are playing a key role in this across the global arena.

"Scotland has some of the most beautiful and diverse marine ecosystems on the planet and we are committed to protecting and safeguarding them for future generations.

"Marine Protected Area (MPA) status is an important way to ensure protection of some of the most vulnerable species and habitats. Our MPA network includes sites for the protection of biodiversity and demonstrates sustainable management and covers around 37% of our seas - exceeding the new global target of 30% by 2030".

Background

Scientists were from the Scottish Government's Marine Scotland directorate. 

Free to use images of the Scotia can be found here: Search: Scotia | Flickr

The new species Pseudumbellula  is physically similar to Umbellula, consisting of a cluster of feeding polyps on the tip of a 50-70cm slender supportive stem which is anchored into the deep-sea mud by a muscular bulbous base. There are many different species of Umbellula–like seapens and these are conspicuous forms on the deep sea plains and slopes worldwide.

In the late 19th century, scientists on the HMS Challenger expedition, considered by many to be the first true oceanographic expedition because it produced a huge amount of information about the marine environment,)t encountered types of Umbellula similar to these and being struck by their enigmatic nature wrote that "Umbellula was long one of the rarest of zoological curiosities".

The Challenger expedition covered around 69,000 nautical miles between 1872 and 1876, circumnavigating the globe and identified many organisms then new to science.

Even today, relatively little is known about deep-sea seapens, but with research programmes such as Scotia’s in place along with advances in genetic study it is likely that discovery of new species of these and other similarly poorly known organisms will continue for some time into the future.

MRV Scotia has been conducting survey work in our deep waters to the west of Scotland since the late 1990s. The resultant data from these voyages have been crucial to the implementation of many of our protected areas  both in Scottish waters and further afield and to other critical marine management measures in the deep sea.