Diverse coral gardens in the Azores
With a rugged seafloor comprising around 461 seamounts and hills, the Azores are considered a NE Atlantic deep-sea coral hotspot, harbouring more than 160 coral species.
Over the last decade, a solid research aim supported by multiple projects has permitted a better understanding of the regional importance of cold-water corals and other large deep-sea benthic fauna. In contrast with the continental margins of Europe, reef-building scleractinians such as Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata are less prominent in the Azores. Instead, gorgonians, stylasterids and/or antipatharians are the most frequent habitat-builders, making up more than twenty different types of coral gardens that are found between 20 and 3,500 m depth.
In the shelf environments of the Azores, the most common species are black corals such as Antipathella spp. and Tanacetipathes spp. In deeper waters, Dentomuricea sp. and Viminella flagellum are a dominant sight on the summits of seamount summits, found between 200 and 400 m depth. Other conspicuous gorgonians such as Callogorgia verticillata, Paracalyphtrophora josephinae, Candidella imbricata, Acanthogorgia armata and the stylasterid Errina dabneyi are dominant at greater depths. Extremely long-lived species such as the black coral Leiopathes spp. can also be abundant on some seamounts and may reach more than 2 m in height, with documented ages of 2,300 years.