The corals no one knew existed

This undated file photo released by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority on April 23, 2009 shows a bleached section of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
PHOTO: AFP, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

There are corals off the UK coast that are older than the pyramids of Egypt, but the fight for their survival has only just begun

Off the north-west coast of Scotland, 3,300ft (1,000m) under the sea, life is thriving amidst an otherwise drab and muddy ocean floor.

This is thanks to a cold-water coral system called the Darwin Mounds. Unlike their tropical counterparts, these corals do not need sunlight to survive.

Instead they sit in the dark, waiting for food to pass by. As they are so deep, these corals are not easily visible.

In fact, until 1998, no one even knew this group of corals existed.

They are also extremely fragile: easily damaged and even destroyed by the deep-sea fishing trawlers that drag their nets along the ocean floor.

The reef structures, which can take thousands of years to grow, can be killed in mere moments.

"If all the 'parent' coral colonies are damaged, they will not easily produce offspring, and it becomes very difficult to have new coral colonies establishing," says Veerle Huvenne of the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in the UK.

This is why they need to be protected.

But although the Darwin Mounds are now well recognised, there are believed to be many more cold-water corals off the UK coast that remain undiscovered.

How can an area deep under the sea be protected if nobody knows it is there in the first place?

The corals are important as more than oddities: they provide the ideal place for small sea life.

There are numerous niches, crevices and holes where animals can hide, explains Huvenne. They are "little islands of high biodiversity".

In fact, one mound can be home to as many as 1,300 different types of marine life.

Coral reefs are also places where mothers rear their young fish. "We saw cold-water coral reefs teeming with pregnant fish - ready to span," Huvenne says of one expedition.

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