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  •  A scuba diver swims above a bed of corals off Malaysia

    A scuba diver swims above a bed of corals off Malaysia's Tioman island in the South China Sea May 4, 2008 | Photo: Reuters

Published 17 September 2018

Scientists from Panama and Costa Rica discovered a new form of red coral in an environmentally-sensitive, biodiverse hotspot off Panama's Pacific coast.

A study released by the Bulletin of Marine Science reveals that scientists have encountered a new coral species in Panama, and it’s blood red.

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The new species was discovered in a threatened low-light reef area of the oceanic Coiba National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60 km off mainland Pacific Panama.

The species was detected during a joint project conducted by researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama (STRI) and the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias del Mar y Limnología (Center for Ocean Science and Limnology, CIMAR) at the University of Costa Rica.

The ocean researchers named the find Thesea dalioi, after Ray Dalio, a long time supporter of marine exploration and public outreach in the region.

The red coral was discovered in Hannibal Bank, a coastal seamount located just east of Panama’s Coiba island. It’s an underwater biodiversity hotspot that scientists know little about and are just now beginning to explore.

"After just two expeditions using submersibles down to 300 meters, we have identified 17 species of octocorals for the Hannibal Bank, including the discovery and description of three new species," said Hector Guzman, STRI marine ecologist and one of the study’s authors.

Scientists determined that T. dalioi was a new find in scientific terms by comparing its physical traits, such as branch thickness and colony color, with the only other Thesea coral in the eastern Pacific, Thesea variabilis.

Guzman told Science News: "Medical researchers have identified therapeutic benefits derived from both soft and hard corals such as anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, bone repair and neurological benefits." The co-author of the study, ‘A New Alcyonacean Species (Cnidaria: Anthozoa: Octocorallia) From a Seamount in the Tropical Pacific Ocean’, hinted that future research depends on funding and access to the Panamanian sea park.  

Thesea dalioi sp. nov. (STRI 1234) holotype, Bulletin of Marine Science

"Our ability to contribute to the understanding of soft corals and their habitats depends not only on steady funding for the use of submersibles but also on our continued ability to obtain permission to work in Coiba National Park," said Guzman.

Adding T. dalioi to the scientific registry is significant because the low-light environments, where the species was found, are considered fragile habitats with a wide range of corals, algae, and sponges, which are generally neglected by scientists and conservation policies because they are difficult to reach.

Hannibal Bank is one of the spots requiring more attention for its protection. "The present study should provide the basis for further research on the genus and contributes to the diversity and distribution knowledge of octocorals from the mesophotic zone in the eastern Pacific Ocean," said Odalisca Breedy, a marine biologist at CIMAR and fellow study author.


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