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Species Profile – Bamboo coral

November 19, 2010
Bamboo coral fragment showing the diagnosti light and dark bands.

A bamboo coral branch brought from deep. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

On our dive two days ago we brought up a beautiful sample of Bamboo coral. The dark bands on a light-colored background give this coral its common name.

Bamboo coral skeletons consist of stretches of light-colored branch-like calcium carbonate material, interspersed with darker joint-like regions of gorgonin protein. The black bands may serve as shock absorbers or as flexibility joints – you don’t normally see organisms with a carbonate skeleton getting that large.

The specimen collected was fairly large (~2 ft) so it was attached to the outside of the ROV with a bungee cord by one of the manipulator arms. A large specimen is needed in order to have enough girth at the base to section it for age determination. Brendan Roark explained that he uses them for paleoclimate studies since some of these deep-water corals can live for several hundred years. Back in his laboratory, Brendan will cut disks from bottom and analyze the age of this coral much like you can do with tree rings.

Bamboo coral fragment showing the diagnostic light and dark bands.

The black bands in bamboo coral may act as shock absorbers or flexible joints. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Another unique thing about these corals is their banded structure – the same organism is depositing two distinct types of skeletons. The light-colored carbonate portion derives its carbon from in situ organic carbon at the depth at which the organism is living whereas the black bands are getting their carbon from marine snow (particulate organic matter recently exported from surface waters). It’s like having two history books side by side. So you can compare the radiocarbon profile from the two different portions of the same bamboo coral and it may be able to tell you what was going on at the surface and at depth over its long life-span.

Bamboo coral can bioluminesce when touched.

When tissue samples were collected on deck, the bamboo coral bioluminesced. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

There are even bioluminescent bamboo corals that give off a blue light that shoots up and down the axis when touched. Much is still being learned about these fascinating corals. Recently, a mission funded by NOAA discovered seven new species of bamboo coral in deep waters off the Hawaiian Islands. Of these seven new species, six may represent completely new genera.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. LORI permalink
    November 19, 2010 3:43 pm


    • ncmuseummike permalink
      November 19, 2010 7:37 pm

      Yes, congratulations indeed – a huge accomplishment. Maybe we will celebrate tonight! She was very happy to have internet access this morning for the news.

  2. owensscience permalink
    November 19, 2010 6:18 pm

    Thank you Lori! Woooohoooo!

  3. liz baird permalink
    November 19, 2010 9:46 pm

    No wonder she is serving as an educator at sea!
    Just think of the ways she will be able to bring her new knowledge of bamboo coral back to her students!

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