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Deepwater Undersea Gardening

August 25, 2012

A major part of the expedition is devoted to surveying Baltimore Canyon for deep water corals. Several researchers are interested in these animals and one of them is the Co-Principal Investigator and co-chief scientist, Dr. Sandra Brooke.

Dr. Sandra Brooke with one of the slurp buckets from the ROV. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Dr. Sandra Brooke with one of the slurp buckets from the ROV. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Dr. Brooke was born in England, and made her way to the Cayman Islands where she worked to control mosquito populations, and learned how to dive. She found herself volunteering for the branch of government managing the marine life of the island. After a brief stint in Honduras working on the mosquito problem in banana plantations, she decided marine biology was her real interest, eventually earning her Ph.D. studying “Reproduction and Larval Ecology of Deepwater Stony Coral”.

Sandra has studied tropical shallow water corals and deep water corals around the globe and now works as the Director of Coral Conservation at the Marine Conservation Institute and has a joint appointment at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.

Dr. Brooke examines some newly collected coral in the ROV’s biobox. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Dr. Brooke examines some newly collected coral in the ROV’s biobox. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

On the Deepwater Canyons Expedition she is working to keep some of the coral specimens, particularly Paragorgia arborea, alive in aquaria. Using specially designed insulated containers, the corals are kept in chilled seawater and will eventually be transported back to her laboratory.  Dr. Brooke is interested in studying their physiology, in particular their tolerance to sediment and changes in temperature. One of the ways to monitor this is to hold them in closed containers and measure their respiration by measuring oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production. If possible she would also like to study their captive reproduction.

Dr. Brooke examines a newly collected Paragorgia arborea for her coral physiology study. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Dr. Brooke examines a newly collected Paragorgia arborea for her coral physiology study. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Another long-term experiment will look at their growth and survival rates in the canyon. Some collected corals will be stained with the dye Alizarin Red. which will stain the calcium carbonate that makes up the spicules that help keep them upright and rigid. This will make their skeletons appear pink. The corals will be placed in containers on the landers that will be deployed in Baltimore Canyon. After a year, the landers will be recovered and the corals examined for growth, since new growth will not be colored pink. These octocorals do not have stony skeletons, and they do not have growth rings, so what is known about their growth rates in the wild comes from isotopic analysis; more about this later.

Paragorgia arborea is an important coldwater coral with a worldwide distribution. Bottom trawling for fish has destroyed much of its habitat, a practice that may well prevent diminished fish populations from ever recovering.

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