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Deep reefs could offer refuge to vulnerable marine life as oceans warm

Deep reefs could serve as refuge for vulnerable species affected by warming ocean temperatures, according to new research. Photo by pxhere/CC
Deep reefs could serve as refuge for vulnerable species affected by warming ocean temperatures, according to new research. Photo by pxhere/CC

June 10 (UPI) -- New research by a team of Australian scientists suggests deep reefs are relatively insulated from the ecological damages caused by rising ocean temperatures.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests deep marine forests could serve as refuge for vulnerable marine species as they flee the degraded reefs of the shallows.

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Marine forests are formed by large algae. In Australia and elsewhere, they provide food, shelter and other resources to a variety of fish and invertebrates.

In 2011, an extreme heatwave baked the coast of Western Australia, causing ocean temperature anomalies as great as 10 degrees above normal. The number of coastal marine forests dwindled as result.

To assess the scope of the ecological damage, scientists surveyed the health of both shallow and deep marine forests.

"We wanted to find out if deeper areas of the ocean offered some protection against ocean warming events for marine forests," lead researcher Anita Giraldo Ospina, doctoral student at the University of Western Australia, said in a news release.

Though researchers noted dramatic changes among shallow forests, deeper reefs appeared significantly less affected.

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Among reefs just 50 feet below the surface of the sea, the types and numbers of species were significantly altered. The same changes observed among shallow forests were minimal or non-existent on reefs around 130 feet below the ocean surface.

"This provides hope that deep reefs may be areas where organisms can survive the impacts of ocean warming and possibly help the recovery of impacted shallow reefs," Ospina said.

Previous studies have shown that fish move to deeper reefs when temperatures rise, and surveys have also shown that deep reefs host a surprisingly wide variety of coral species.

Corals are also more resilient, previous studies have shown, when they exist in isolation.

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