The first coral reef in Italy has been identified, according to researchers. The underwater ecosystem extends for at least two and a half kilometres on the Adriatic coast near Monopoli, in Puglia. It is the first mesophotic coral reef – a term applied to ecosystems with low levels of light – to be found in the Mediterranean.
These types of reef “are found at depths ranging from 30–40 metres … up to 200 metres”, the researchers write in the study published in Nature.
For this reason, the colours of the coral reef in Puglia are more subtle than the better-known varieties in the Pacific.
“The famous Australian or Maldivian coral reefs rise almost to the surface of the water, making the most of the sunlight that is the real fuel of these ecosystems,” said Prof Giuseppe Corriero, the director of the department of biology at the University of Bari Aldo Moro, who led the research project.
“[Mesophotic reefs] are very rare, because they manage to survive and grow despite the lack of light.
“In the early 1990s I worked as a marine biologist in the Maldives. But I never thought I’d find a coral reef, 30 years later, a stone’s throw from my house.”
The Puglia reef is about 35 to 50 metres deep and covers about two and a half kilometres, but researchers say it could extend for tens of kilometres along the eastern coast.
In the past, coral reefs in the Mediterranean Sea were widespread, but over time became extinct. The remnants of some of these older reefs are still visible, including a small reef on the island of Mljet in Croatia.
Most coral reefs are less than 10,000 years old and occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean area, yet they provide a home for at least 25% of marine species, including fish, sponges and molluscs.
However, warming seas and ocean acidification have severely bleached many reefs, and most are incapable of growing quickly enough to compensate for rising sea levels triggered by climate change.