The Noah's Ark of the deep, a future for biodiversity?

Global warming

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© Roberto Rinaldi / La Caz'A Productions

A scientific program of the 1 OCEAN Foundation to understand and preserve animal forests.

August 2022. After a particularly hot summer, amateur divers are warning of a major gorgonian sea fan die-off in the Mediterranean. In some places, populations have been completely decimated between 0 and 30 meters depth. In response, the 1 OCEAN Foundation and UNESCO decided to launch a major scientific exploration program. The aim: to understand how deep-sea gorgonians and their ecosystems could survive.

©Alexis Rosenfeld

Red gorgonians(Paramuricea clavata) are endemic and emblematic animals of the Mediterranean. They are close relatives of reef corals, but unlike them, they can live at great depths, up to 100 meters. Like underwater trees, gorgonians form veritable animal forests. Their three-dimensional structure gives these sessile organisms a role as a larder, nursery and protective habitat on which many species depend.

An Alarming Observation

During the summer of 2022, gorgonians in the western Mediterranean basin experienced a massive mortality episode linked to abnormally high temperatures. At certain sites, the results were alarming: between 0 and 30 meters below the surface, almost all the gorgonians died in just a few days. If we are to believe
these thermal disturbances are set to become increasingly frequent. In the short term, Mediterranean gorgonian populations could be seriously threatened, and with them the entire associated ecosystem.

"The mortality of gorgonians is probably the last alarm signal concerning the ecological crisis we are going through"

Lorenzo BRAMANTI, CNRS Research Fellow - LECOB.

"The situation of the gorgonians in the Mediterranean is the image of what is happening on our planet. Like the Amazonian forest, the underwater animal forests are disappearing little by little, with consequences just as dramatic. For thousands of living beings, these forests are both a protective habitat and a food source and their disappearance inevitably leads to a loss of biodiversity." - Alexis ROSENFELD, Explorer and photographer for the 1 OCEAN missions.

Faced with the ecological emergency, a scientific exploration program

In response to the ecological emergency, UNESCO and the 1 OCEAN Foundation have launched a scientific exploration program in partnership with the CNRS and the LECOB research unit at the Observatoire Océanologique de Banyuls-sur-Mer: "The Noah's Ark of the deep, a future for biodiversity?" Indeed, beyond a certain depth, the gorgonians seem preserved, as if they had been protected in a thermal capsule. For scientists, this finding is a real source of hope: less impacted by temperature anomalies, the depths could become veritable climatic refuges for animal forests.

Launched in October 2022, this two-year program will involve four European countries (France, Italy, Monaco and Spain), with Lorenzo BRAMANTI, a specialist in animal forests, as Scientific Director. The program will be based in particular on Mediterranean shipwrecks, which are formidable natural laboratories for the study of animal forests. To assist the researchers, Lily, the 1 OCEAN Foundation's underwater drone, is tasked with collecting data at depth and taking samples for genetic analysis. The aim will be to define whether deep-sea habitats can host demographically self-sufficient animal forests and thus become the ultimate biological safe haven.

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