Discovering biodiversity: 300 meters deep in the Italian sea

MoBioMarCal (Monitoring of Marine Biodiversity in Calabria), a scientific marine exploration project, has revealed a wealth of underwater species and diversity in Italy by using innovative technology which allows to film nature very deep in the sea.

<em>Antipathella subpinnata</em>

For the first time ever, three different species of black coral, which are considered rare in Mediterranean seas, have been filmed in their natural environment. One of these, Antipathes dichotoma, has until now remained little known as it was possible to study it only through fragments preserved in museums. The filming robot used in project has also detected the presence of vast forests of thousands and thousands of colonies of another black coral, Antipathella subpinnata, which appears white in its natural environment due to a "skin" which covers its skeleton. This coral species is tree-shaped and it can reach a diameter of ten centimeters and a height of 1.5 meters. Some colonies can be thousands of years old.

The purpose of MoBioMarCal was to monitor and study the underwater environment through seabed exploration at a depth of up to 300 meters. The range between 60 and 300m, known as "mesophotic zone" or twilight zone, is by far the least explored area in the Italian sea. In spite of this, it contains a wealth of biodiversity of particular importance, including many fans, black corals, sponges and fish of extraordinary shapes and colours, which haven’t been observed until now in their natural environment.

A sophisticated underwater robot (ROV, Remotely Operated Vehicle), which can reach depths not operational for divers, equipped with a camera and a High Definition video camera, has collected unique images of marine organisms never observed before in vivo. These were put together in a documentary created by Marco Pisapia from ISPRA, the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, an IUCN Member.

The research has made it possible to discover rich natural resources in twilight rocky environments, characterized by abundance of sponges and coral three-dimensional environments which provide refuge or nursery areas to many fish species. The detection of relatively abundant specimen of several species which have until now been considered “rare” shows how definitions have been influenced by the inaccessibility of these environments. This new research shows that the Mediterranean mesophotic zone off Calabrian coasts is typically rich in corals and sponges, contrary to previous belief.

The collected data will be used to create a photographic and marine geo-referenced database of flora and fauna for the identification, study and assessment of habitats and biocenosis of special natural interest and conservation, and for specific emergencies in Calabria’s seas.

The video documentary of the project MoBioMarCal aims to present a new approach to marine biodiversity research, towards the exploration of depths never directly reached by humans. The important achievements of this project have led to extend the research and monitoring along the deep coasts of other Italian regions such as Campania, Sardinia, Tuscany, Sicily and Liguria.

The scientific project MoBioMarCal, funded by the Calabria Region, Italy, has been coordinated by Simonepietro Canese, researcher at ISPRA.

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