Deep sea corals in the South Atlantic: new insights from an interdisciplinary study

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Ubiquitous to all oceans, scleractinian corals have been the main framework builders in the shallow and deep-sea since the Triassic. In contrast to their shallow-water counterparts, cold-water corals (also known as azooxanthellate or deep-sea corals) do not live in symbiosis with photosynthetic dinoflagellates. This means that they can live deep within the ocean without the need for light. Occurrences of deep-sea corals have been reported from Antarctica to the Arctic and down to depths as great as 6,300 m. Despite their global distribution, and potential importance in forming habitats, little is known about the controls on their distributions. With ongoing changes to the ocean environment it is timely to consider the potential vulnerability of these important ecosystems. This proposal represents a unique opportunity to combine the efforts of deep-sea coral researchers in the UK (Laura Robinson and Michelle Taylor) and Brazil (Marcelo V. Kitahara). The project seeks to initiate a long-term partnership which aims to build a coherent view of the long term controls (both today and in the past) on deep-sea corals in the South Atlantic.

The South Atlantic holds numerous records of deep-sea coral species, especially on the Brazilian Margin - extending onto seamounts and ridges. These records encompass more than 60 species of which some are purported to form the largest deep-water coral reefs in the world. Such large reefs are formed under the influence of several water masses originating in both the high northern and southern latitudes. These waters have very different properties such as nutrient concentrations, pH and temperature. With this diversity in habitat and water column properties the South Atlantic is an ideal testing ground to explore the large scale controls on deep-sea corals in space and time. With access to samples to the North and South of Brazil (UK collaborators) and within the South Atlantic (Brazil) and with world leading expertise in taxonomy, genetics, deep sea ecology and coral mineralogy, growth rate, geochemistry and past climates we are proposing to come together in a new collaboration to share our ideas, samples and techniques.

Within the two-year program we will organise exchange visits, establish a shared data base, share samples and access to laboratories. During the project we will seek to establish additional support to continue these efforts beyond the scope of this initial pump priming proposal.

Planned Impact

Beyond the scientific community, we have identified five end-user groups who may benefit from the new collaboration and science outcomes.

a) Policy makers: Diversity and connectivity data are often requested from policy makers (e.g. regional marine fisheries organisations), Marine Protected Area managers, and required by industry for Environmental Impact Assessments. These data are widely lacking for the deep sea; especially the South Atlantic. This project will provide raw data for this purpose as well as core specimens for future connectivity studies.

b) General Public - Project Website and Public Lectures and Events: Our project provides an excellent teaching opportunity for public engagement through the visually impactful imagery and footage from the deep sea. We will publicize our research through Facebook and Twitter, providing links to associated websites and our latest talks, press releases, and papers. We will continue to participate in outreach events to reach the largest possibly audience.

c) Undergraduates: We will engage undergraduate students directly in the project by enabling hands-on laboratory expertise, a passion for scientific endeavour, and a deep knowledge of the research field. Summer projects and final year projects provide a great opportunity for advisors and students to integrate education and research beyond the classroom, advance discovery and understanding, while providing training on solving scientific problems and laboratory skills. Major findings will also be posted on the Departmental Facebook pages allowing the wider undergraduate community to maintain awareness of cutting-edge research activities that are happening in their building.

d) Early career scientists: This project will enhance the career development of two early career scientists, one in Brazil (Kitahara) and one in the UK (Taylor). The project will bring a direct benefit to them through financial support, as well as providing the basis for a collaboration that has the potential to bring long term scientific benefits. Robinson will provide support and mentoring within the framework of the project and beyond.

e) Increasing Women in STEM: The proposal supports two female investigators who will continue to provide mentorship and act as role models for junior women in STEM subjects. Efforts will be made during the project to include female graduates and undergraduate students in the project through direct internships and through outreach presentations.


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Samperiz A (2020) Stylasterid corals: A new paleotemperature archive in Earth and Planetary Science Letters

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Stolarski J (2021) A modern scleractinian coral with a two-component calcite-aragonite skeleton. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Description During the award we have carried out exchange visits between labs in Brazil and the UK allowing all project partners to meet and share ideas. Bristol PhD student Maria Luiza De Carvalho Ferreira has worked with Dr Kitahara and with the museum in Rio de Janeiro to collate recordings of deep-sea corals in Brazilian waters. In particular we have discovered the existence of fossil corals from the Rio Grande Rise which are housed in the museum. These samples are no being prepared for shipment to the UK and will be analysed for the age profiles to compare to the ages of fossil corals from the wider Atlantic and Southern Ocean. At the same time we have been analysing the geochemistry of modern to examine biomineralization patterns. We have published two papers to EPSL which show temperature controls on the stable isotope (oxygen) and trace metal (magnesium and lithium) geochemistry of certain deep-sea corals. We are preparing a follow up paper using boron isotopes to examine the role of pH and carbonate chemistry on coral calcification. We have established a new collaboration with Jaroslaw Stolarski enabling us to combine mineralogy and genetic controls on coral biomineralisation.
Exploitation Route Our collation of information on coral distributions will be of value to habitat specialists seeking to understand the controls on coral populations, as well as researchers seeking to pan future research expeditions.

Our geochemical work will provide a solid platform for understanding coral biomineralization as well as improving paleoclimate reconstructions
Sectors Education,Environment

Description The data are being included in outreach talks by the team, thus our science is reaching a wide audience within the general public. In addition our research is being included in teaching materials.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Education,Environment
Impact Types Cultural

Description Natural Environment Research Council
Amount £608,622 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S001743/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 01/2022
Description Coral mineralogy and biomineralisation 
Organisation Polish Academy of Sciences
Country Poland 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Exchange of ideas, samples and techniques to explore biomineralisation of scleractinian corals
Collaborator Contribution Exchange of ideas, samples and techniques to explore biomineralisation of scleractinian corals, including detailed mapping of coral skeletons
Impact PNAS paper published in 2021
Start Year 2019
Description Marcelo Kitahara - Brazil 
Organisation Federal University of São Paulo
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution PhD student Maria Luiza De Carvalho Ferreira visited Sao Paulo to initiate the collaboration. PI Robinson will take part in a follow up visit in March 2019. We are developing new geochemical proxies which will be used by the combined team to better understand coral bio-mineralisation. Together the project team will work towards the project goals.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Kitahara is providing additional supervisory support and training to PhD student Maria Luiza De Carvalho Ferreira (Brazilian student funded by Faculty for the Future at University of Bristol). Together the project team will work towards the project goals.
Impact N/A - too early
Start Year 2018
Description Nanjing University 
Organisation Nanjing University (NJU)
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Hosting 2 Nanjing University PhD students as visiting students at Bristol. Exchange of ideas.
Collaborator Contribution exchange of ideas and papers
Impact Continued exchange of ideas and papers since Dr Tianyu Chen left his post doc at Bristol to take up a position at Nanjing University.
Start Year 2017
Description University of Essex 
Organisation University of Essex
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution U. of Essex providing expertise in coral taxonomy and access to samples
Collaborator Contribution U of Bristol providing samples, access to research cruises and geochemical insights.
Impact The formal collaboration occurred with the start of this funding
Start Year 2018
Description Herdman Symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar as part of the Herman Symposium organised by Undergradute Students at the University of Liverpool open to public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Public talk - Boston Aquarium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Large publich outreach talk 'The Carlson Lecture' organised by MIT at the Boston Aquarium, also live streamed and available on line.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Talk at CEBIMAR 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Seminar at CEBIMAR, Brazil to project partners, and other reserachers at the Institution.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Videos for teaching 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Team members, and wider members of the research group at Bristol prepared short videos on their research for an undergraduate course in Oceans and Climates. These videos allowed the students to hear about the journey of PhD students, and their active research during a period (covid) when the undergraduates could not directly engage with the wider university.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020