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Habitat characterization of deep-water coral reefs in La Gaviera canyon (Avilés Canyon System, Cantabrian Sea)

December 19, 2013

Surveys conducted at the complex Avilés Canyon System (southern Bay of Biscay) in order to identify vulnerable habitats and biological communities revealed the presence of noteworthy deep-water coral reefs in one of the tributaries of the system (La Gaviera Canyon). The aim of the present study is to determine why this deep-sea canyon provides suitable environmental conditions for corals to grow. This hanging canyon is characterized by an irregular U-shaped floor with two narrow differentiated flanks. Sand ripples and rocky outcrops structured in diverse W-E directed steps are observed on the canyon floor, suggesting intense hydrodynamic activity. Accordingly, high-frequency near-bottom current and thermal structure profiles showed that there occur strong shifts in currents/hydrography behaving as front-like features at each tidal cycle. These involve the sudden increase of along-axis velocities to over 50 cm/s and vertical velocities of over 5 cm/s in each tidal cycle associated with the passage of sharp thermal fronts and thermal inversions suggesting overturning. A year-long near-bottom current record showed events with near-bottom velocities well over 1 m/s lasting for several days.

Three cold-water coral settings were distinguished: a dense coral reef located on stepped rocky bottoms of the eastern and western flanks, carbonate mounds (20–30 m high) located on the canyon floor, and a cluster of shallower water dead coral framework at the head sector of the canyon. Video and still images from a towed sled and ROV verified the presence of dropstones and rippled sand sheets surrounding the mounds and revealed changes in the coral population (alive or dead; total or patchy coverage) in coral-reef and carbonate mound areas. The dominant species of the reef are Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata, which considerably increase the habitat’s complexity and biodiversity in relation to other facies described in the canyon. The presence of living cold-water reefs is directly related to a high energy environment at depths between 700 and 1200 m in the levels between the lower bound of Eastern North Atlantic Central Water (ENACW) and the core of Mediterranean Water (MW). Such level matches the water density range σθ=27.35–27.65 kg m−3 which has been identified as limits for cold-water coral distribution in the North Atlantic.

Sánchez F, González-Pola  C, Druet M, García-Alegre A, et al., in press. Habitat characterization of deep-water coral reefs in La Gaviera canyon (Avilés Canyon System, Cantabrian Sea), Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, 2013, doi:10.1016/j.dsr2.2013.12.014. Article.

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