South Eastern USA

Most extensive cold-water coral areas in the US

Off the south eastern United States (SEUS) coast there are extensive and productive cold-water coral habitats. These extend from Cape Lookout, North Carolina through the Straits of Florida and include scattered locations in the Gulf of Mexico over a range of depths from about 360 m to at least 1000 m. By one estimate, the SEUS and Gulf of Mexico have the most extensive cold-water coral areas in the US. These areas have been poorly studied, partly due to their depths, rugged bottom topography and the fact that they are usually overlain by extreme currents (i.e. the Gulf Stream).

Cold-water corals (> 200 m) in the SEUS are diverse with at least 47 species of solitary, ahermatypic hard corals, 10 species of colonial (some hermatypic) hard corals, and 52 species of soft and horny corals. Conservatively, the region contains at least 109 species of cold-water corals (classes Hydrozoa and Anthozoa). Most of these species are either solitary or do not form major reef structures, but they all contribute to habitat complexity. As in other parts of the world, Lophelia pertusa, is the major reef-building coral in the region, and it is common on appropriate substrates throughout the SEUS in depths of about 370m  to at least 800 m. Off North Carolina, Lophelia forms what may be considered classic mounds that appear to be a sediment/coral rubble matrix topped with almost monotypic stands of Lophelia. To the south, sediment/coral mounds are smaller and scattered; however, Lophelia and other hard and soft corals populate the abundant hard substrates of the Blake Plateau in great numbers. Other scleractinians, such as the colonial corals Madrepora oculata and Enallopsammia spp., contribute to the overall complexity of the habitat. Species diversity of scleractinians appears to increase south of Cape Fear, North Carolina. Bamboo and black corals are also important structure-forming corals (reaching heights of 1-2 m) in the SEUS. They occur locally in moderate abundances, generally south of Cape Fear, NC.

The authors thank Dr. Steve W. Ross (UNC-W) for contributing the text, videos and imagery of the South Eastern USA Lophelia reefs.

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