It is the first mesophotic coral reef—a term applied to ecosystems with low levels of light—to be found in the Mediterranean.
The discovery of the first coral reef in Italy was made two kilometres off the coast of Monopoli in Apulia by researchers from the University of Bari. While the reef is unique, similar structures could be widely distributed in the Mediterranean, the scientists report in the science journal .
Coral reefs mainly occur in waters of the western Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions, within the latitude of 30°N and 30°S. In the Mediterranean Sea, coral reefs were widely distributed in the past, but they currently have a reduced extension and distribution, and remnants of some of these older reefs are only still visible in a few locations.
Mesophotic coral reefs are found at depths ranging from 30 to 40 metres, up to 200 metres. Mesophotic reefs are very rare, because they manage to survive and grow despite the lack of light. Unlike more well-known coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, mesophotic reefs are built up from "non-symbiotic scleractinians"—stony corals that feed on organic matter floating around in the water. Being without the photosynthetic algae that gives other reefs their vibrant colours, the coral reef in Puglia are more subtle.
Up until recently, these kinds of reefs have been largely overlooked in scientific research because they are usually too deep for scuba divers to explore but are not deemed deep enough to warrant the expense of deep-water exploration techniques. Now, technology is finally allowing divers better access to this "middle ground," resulting in this discovery.
The find prompted researchers to call for the establishment of a protected marine area, which would prevent fishing that could damage the reef.