The deep-sea is a vast part of the world’s ocean. Even today, it often surprises people to discover how much life lives in this largely unexplored and inaccessible world of darkness, cold and high pressure. In fact, it was once thought to be lifeless, before early explorers dredged the deep-sea bottom and pulled up creatures never before seen.
This summer, I joined the NOAA research vessel Okeanos Explorer, America’s premier deep-sea exploration vessel, and had a unique opportunity to study habitats of the deep-sea. Among the most striking were deep-sea “coral forests.”
Many of the corals we saw were octocorals, which aren’t the “typical” warm water coral found in shallow waters that most people think of when they hear the word. These octocorals can form very large and very old colonies, some over 100 years old. Deep-sea octocoral colonies are only predators (unlike their shallow water relatives that often are also photosynthetic thanks to symbionts in their tissues). They feed on organic material as it flows past them on the water current and is caught by one of the eight feeding tentacles that surround each of the mouths of their many polyps.
Corals (and sponges) are what’s been described as “ecosystem engineers”—their very presence provides habitat for many other animals, making them a habitat or “ecosystem” unto themselves. Several serpent stars, for example, live in close symbiosis with their octocoral host—so close in fact that they are almost never present as free-living individuals. Many of these stars spend their entire lives on the coral, with observations showing that some are present even as very tiny individuals. Museum specimens show us that many will not release from their host even after death. In the case of one species, this type of relationship can even protect the corals from human-induced threats—like an oil spill.
But, it’s not just friendly relationships in an ecosystem, and octocorals have a very diverse and colorful “rogues gallery” of predators to deal with as well. Among them are a tiny jellyfish (Aegina citrea) that settles on the feeding polyps present on the branch tips of some corals, devouring the tissue.
The worm-like mollusk called an aplacophoran can be found coiled around the stalks of corals after devouring the tissue on the stalk.
Prominent, often spiny goniasterid sea stars methodically feed on the soft tissues of the corals as they slowly climb up the body. Many of these predatory sea stars are known to remain on the corals for a very long period of time, with some observations suggesting that they have been present for over a year, making them more like parasites.
Giant sea spiders (or pycnogonids) are predators on multiple types of corals and will use their large proboscis to drain fluids out of the corals for food in a vampire-like fashion.
Although not strictly speaking a predator, a sea-anemone-like animal called a zoanthid overtakes the surface of some Paragorgia octocoral colonies, crowding over the original coral animal and competing with the coral’s polyps for food.
We tend to think of an ecosystem as being large, like the deep waters off the Johnston Atoll that we explored. But even one single octocoral specimen can have its own collection of predators, prey and friends.