4,270-year-old Hawaiian Coral

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - April 08, 2009
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A rare, centuries-old deep-water coral discovered off Makapuu

On any given weekend when the tradewinds are right and the skies clear, hang gliders soar high above Makapuu Beach. The view of the ocean from the sky is a gift of nature.

But what few may know is there is another gift just off Oahu’s eastern coastline - one that’s been there for not years or decades, but centuries. And every day it gets a little older.

Less than a quarter mile off Makapuu Beach and nearby Lanikai live some of the oldest marine organisms on earth: deep-water black coral estimated to be between 2,740 and 4,270 years old.

“To the best of our knowledge, it’s the oldest colonial organism yet found,” says researcher Tom Guilderson.

Samples of the priceless coral were gathered for analysis in 2004. Researchers from the U.S. mainland teamed with members from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory on several dives off Oahu and the Big Island.


 

“There’s a coral bed that’s managed outside of Makapuu, and they also sampled a smaller bed off Lanikai and another one off Keahole Point on the Big Island,” says John Smith, science director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory.

The group used the University of Hawaii’s manned deep-sea research submersible during the project, which also included a journey to Cross Seamount about 100 miles south of Oahu. A majority of the dives were made in the range of 12,000 feet deep.

Using carbon data technology, researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Cruz determined the Hawaiian deep-sea corals were far older than first estimated. In a report released in late March, scientists revealed the coral was more than 42 centuries old.

“These are the deep-water black corals and gold corals, with the deep-water black corals being older,” says Smith. “Basically it’s like looking back at tree rings - looking back at old trees, only on the sea floor. You’re doing very detailed sampling on the layers going in or out into the center.”

Gold coral: beautiful and rare

And there’s speculation some of these coral beds could be even older.

“Many of the samples that we have analyzed are branches, not the largest portions of the colony, and so the ages may not indicate how old the entire individual is,” says Guilderson.

At 4,270 years old, it is one of the oldest continuously growing organisms on this planet. Truth is, they look pretty good for their age.

“These deep-sea corals are kind of fingering and branching, and they build up in a different way because they’re just a different type of coral,” says Smith with excitement. “When you see them underwater and alive, they’re just fantastic colors - pink, reds, blue and purple.”

Smith says there are many creatures living in these coral beds hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface.

“There’s usually all these brittle stars and crabs with long legs intertwined in these deep-sea corals,” says Smith. “These deep-sea corals are just fantastic, especially in the water.”


That may seem obvious, but unfortunately there are many who like to see them out of their environment. Hawaiian deep sea corals face threats from harvesting for jewelry and from commercial fisheries.

“The extremely long life spans reinforce the need for further protection of deep-sea habitat,” says Guilderson. “The research has already had an impact for activities in Hawaiian waters, where a harvesting and fishing moratorium has been enacted to protect certain areas.”

Scientists say this latest discovery calls for additional action of further protection of these gems found just footsteps off Oahu’s eastern shoreline. If not, they will die on our watch.

Not an option for such a priceless gift.

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